I've lined up my 1983 All-Pro team in a 3-4 defense. The reason is that most NFL teams play it. The real reason is that there are more good linebackers around than defensive tackles or middle guards. The two most crowded positions these days, from a talent standpoint, are outside linebacker and center. Almost every team has one of All-Pro or near All-Pro caliber. To include an extra outside linebacker, I moved the Giants' Lawrence Taylor to the inside, a position he played in the middle part of this season while Harry Carson was hurt. Yeah, I know, it's a copout. But it would just be too painful to leave one of these outside guys off.
Once upon a time, center was the place where you hid a weak sister. No more. The middle guards and odd front defenses have placed greater stress on the center position, with the result that we've entered the Golden Age of centers. Never have there been more good ones playing at one time. Dwight Stephenson of Miami was my pick last year. He's still playing at very high efficiency, but this year the Steelers' Mike Webster has reclaimed the position. He came to camp 10 pounds lighter and he honed and perfected his old drive-blocking skills. No one has ever played NFL center better than Webster did this year.
John Hannah remains an easy pick at guard. The heart of the Patriots' offense is the running game, and Hannah once again is the key man. My other guard may surprise some people: 36-year-old Ed White. He has been taken for granted all these years, not watched closely enough. People have always raved about White's pass-blocking skills, but he has also been one of the NFL's best drive-blockers for years. The Chargers aren't bashful about having White pull out and lead on screen passes or on one of Chuck Muncie's sweeps. Washington's Russ Grimm is a comer; Miami's Ed Newman and Atlanta's R.C. Thielemann are close behind.
In his third NFL season, the Redskins' Joe Jacoby has turned into a terrifying force at tackle, a mobile 298-pounder who has no problem pulling out to trap on the opposite side. He also has a mean streak, maybe because he came to the pros as a free agent. Keith Fahnhorst of the 49ers is another one of those loyal soldiers who has labored in relative obscurity for years and who's now having his finest season after nine years in the trenches. He has tamed some of the best defensive ends in the league. Close behind this pair is the Patriots' Brian Holloway, a formful fire-out blocker, but not quite in a class with Fahnhorst and Jacoby as a pass blocker. Dallas' Jim Cooper is probably the league's most underrated tackle.
The tight-end pick goes to the Raiders' Todd Christensen. His massive stats—92 catches, 12 TDs—overshadow those of Cleveland's Ozzie Newsome (89 catches, six TDs), who would have been an All-Pro in a normal year. Christensen was Jim Plunkett's bail-out receiver, his third-and-eight man. Kellen Winslow is a fine player, but he built his stats this year (88 catches, eight TDs) on one 14-catch game. He just didn't have the year Newsome and Christensen had.
Quarterback was one of the easier picks on the board. The marriage of Joe Theismann and Joe Gibbs's offense seems to have been ordained by a higher power, bringing together the natural devilry of both parties. The most interesting part of Theismann's performance this year—276 completions, 60.1%, 29 TDs—was his low interception rate (2.4%), particularly because he's a quarterback who isn't afraid to gamble. Dan Marino is the future Joe Namath, a guy who can snap off those 40-yard rainbows with a flick of the wrist, the way Joe Willie once did.
L.A. Rams rookie Eric Dickerson leads the pack of runners. To put Dickerson's contribution in perspective, simply look at his pass-catching numbers. He caught 51 in 16 games. O.J. Simpson (1973), Earl Campbell (1980) and Jim Brown (1963) are the only NFL players ever to rush for more than the 1,808 yards Dickerson gained this year, and their combined catch total in those seasons was 41. Our other running-back spot goes to Atlanta's William Andrews, a thundering ballcarrier who also figures heavily in the passing game. I would rate Washington's John Riggins and his remarkable single-season record of 24 TDs just a shade behind. Why he wasn't selected to the Pro Bowl squad remains one of the great mysteries. Curt Warner of Seattle had a fine year, but he'll have to wait his turn.
I had six names bunched in my wide-receiver derby: Washington's Charlie Brown, St. Louis' Roy Green, San Francisco's Dwight Clark, Green Bay's James Lofton, Cincinnati's Cris Collinsworth and Seattle's Steve Largent. Mike Quick of Philly and the Giants' Earnest Gray had good numbers, but they weren't finalists. Too many dropped passes. I settled on Green and Brown on the basis of week-by-week evaluation with the other four—what they accomplished in each game and the significance of each contest. Clark, our player of the year in '82, was the closest, but he labored under tight double coverage all year, which kept his numbers down. Lofton was the No. 1 long-ball threat (22.4 yards per catch), but he lacked consistency.
On defense, the ends posed a problem—specifically, how do you keep Miami's Doug Betters off the team after the year he had (16 sacks)? It's a shame, but the Raiders' Howie Long had an equally big year, and was as sturdy against the run as the pass. The Jets' Mark Gastineau, the AFC's leading sacker, with 19, was a target for TV commentators this year. They were always telling you how he was overplaying the pass, at the expense of the run, but then their isolated camera would catch him stopping the ballcarrier for a yard loss. Maybe Gastineau's techniques aren't perfect yet, but nobody hustled as much as he did—for a full afternoon. No, I don't go for the sack dance either, but give the guy credit. He played great this year.
I don't think the Cowboys' Randy White would like lining up in the middle-guard position. That's tough. When my team takes the field against the Canadian Football League All-Stars, that's where he'll be. He should be used to getting triple-teamed anyway. Opposing blockers figured out a new scheme for White this year—the pinball technique. Instead of the old routine in which two guys just lie all over him, one guy now gives White a shot and passes him off to the second guy, who pops him one, while the first guy recoils for another go. There's usually a third guy waiting for mop-up duty, if White manages to filter through. Nevertheless, he had a big year, one of his best ever. If I had gone with a 4-3, my other tackle would have been the Skins' Dave Butz, who put together his finest season.
I think I felt more empathy for Tampa Bay's defensive unit than for any other group in pro football this year. It was like watching a band of heroic fire fighters going down in an inferno. Hugh Green, the Bucs' right outside backer, was worn down during the season. At the end he was playing hurt and punchy, but people still stayed away from his side, and that was after Lee Roy Selmon, in front of him, went down with a groin pull. My other outside linebacker, for the third straight year, is Mad Dog Douglass of the Packers. I'm sorry he doesn't exactly get along with his coach, Bart Starr, who sat him down for a week. I'm sorry none of the other pickers like him. All I can say is, he played like hell every time I saw him. I wish I could have four more picks at this position. Then the Jets' Lance Mehl would make it, and so would Cleveland's Chip Banks, St. Louis' E.J. Junior and the Raiders' Rod Martin.
Jack Lambert still gets his shirt dirty in the middle of the Steelers' meat grinder. We'll keep picking him until someone else demonstrates his superiority. The Giants' Lawrence Taylor was almost as effective in the middle as he was on the outside. Midway through the season he asked Coach Bill Parcells to let him play on special teams. Request granted. Then he asked for a turn on offense, too—at tight end. Request denied. Next thing you know, Taylor will be wanting to cover the games from the press box. Oops, I forgot. He wouldn't talk to sportswriters most of this season. Sorry.
Everson Walls of the Cowboys was an easy pick at one cornerback. "But he's gotten beat deep this year," one scout told me. Hey, so has everyone else. He still has the best break to the ball of any of them. Cincinnati's Ken Riley retired Sunday after 15 years of service. He has never been picked for a Pro Bowl team. Is this fair? No. They leave him in tight coverages. He doesn't chicken out. He clamps on receivers, makes big plays, gets beat occasionally. He's not afraid...an old-style cornerback. Welcome to SI's All-Pro team. Our apologies to the Broncos' Louis Wright, who had an outstanding year. Ditto Raymond Clayborn of the Patriots. Watch the Lions' Bruce McNorton, a name for the future.
They tried to talk me out of my strong-safety pick, Mark Cotney of the Bucs. Who's "they"? Just everybody. Sorry, he's my man. I saw him knocking his brains out too many times in hopeless causes. Granted, Seattle's Kenny Easley has more talent, and the Rams' Nolan Cromwell is more disciplined, but Cotney's my type of player. Ditto the Cards' Lee Nelson, another guy who never gets picked for much of anything. Free safety was easy. Deron Cherry burst onto the Kansas City scene like a rocket, after Gary Barbaro held out and then departed for the USFL. Even the Pro Bowl selectors, who avoid new guys like the plague, recognized that.
Picking kickers this year was almost like rolling dice. Percentages were shockingly high. You could choose any of half a dozen and not be wrong. For me it came down to Baltimore's Raul Allegre (30 of 35) against Giants rookie Ali Haji-Sheikh (35 of 42), a pair of long-range gunners. Allegre gets the nod on the basis of come-through performances in crucial situations; he's responsible for five of his team's seven wins.
New England Punter Rich Camarillo is a repeater. The interesting thing is that both Rohn Stark of the Colts and Camarillo, who finished one-two in gross average, played in bad weather conditions. Camarillo's averages, both gross 44.6 and net 37.1, are amazing in that he seldom gets a chance to boot for the distance—he must position his kicks—whereas Stark is allowed to let 'em fly.
As for Coach of the Year, Gibbs is the obvious choice; the Skins became the first NFC team to win 14 games in a season. But winning the Super Bowl is only half the battle. Keeping up the pace is the real struggle.
In the face of outside-linebacker gridlock, Dr. Z selected the Giants' Taylor inside.
Andrews shines as an all-purpose All-Pro.
Dickerson's 1,808 yards rushing is the fourth-highest total in history.
Allegre's clutch performances elevated the Colts.
A thou-shalt-not pass blocker, Ed White is also one of the NFL's best drive-blockers.
Gastineau was more than a dancing fool.
Center Webster excels in the Golden Age.
DR. Z's ALL-PRO TEAM
WIDE RECEIVER—CHARLIE BROWN, Washington
TACKLE—JOE JACOBY, Washington
GUARD—JOHN HANNAH, New England
CENTER—MIKE WEBSTER, Pittsburgh
GUARD—ED WHITE, San Diego
TACKLE—KEITH FAHNHORST, San Francisco
TIGHT END—TODD CHRISTENSEN, L.A. Raiders
WIDE RECEIVER—ROY GREEN, St. Louis
QUARTERBACK—JOE THEISMANN, Washington
RUNNING BACK—ERIC DICKERSON, L.A. Rams
RUNNING BACK—WILLIAM ANDREWS, Atlanta
END—MARK GASTINEAU, N.Y. Jets
MIDDLE GUARD-TACKLE—RANDY WHITE, Dallas
END—HOWIE LONG, L.A. Raiders
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER—HUGH GREEN, Tampa Bay
INSIDE LINEBACKER—LAWRENCE TAYLOR, N.Y. Giants
INSIDE LINEBACKER—JACK LAMBERT, Pittsburgh
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER—MIKE DOUGLASS, Green Bay
CORNERBACK—KEN RILEY, Cincinnati
CORNERBACK—EVERSON WALLS, Dallas
STRONG SAFETY—MARK COTNEY, Tampa Bay
FREE SAFETY—DERON CHERRY, Kansas City
KICKER—RAUL ALLEGRE, Baltimore
PUNTER—RICH CAMARILLO, New England
PLAYER OF THE YEAR—ERIC DICKERSON, L.A. Rams
COACH OF THE YEAR—JOE Gums, Washington