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Dr. Z Zeros In On The Top Pros Of '85

As the game becomes more specialized, the author's picks reflect the changing nature of competition in the NFL

Situation substitution is doing a number on my All-Pro selections, and if the purists are hollering cop-out, well, I didn't make the game the way it is. I'm just trying to line up the best people possible. I've picked two 3-4 inside linebackers, a pure 4-3 middle linebacker, a 4-3 defensive tackle and, for the first time, a nickelback.

Oh yes, I've also picked three running backs instead of two because I wouldn't be able to face my wife and children if I left Atlanta's Gerald Riggs off it. I've picked two noseguards instead of one because I simply couldn't choose between the Jets' Joe Klecko and the Bengals' Tim Krumrie. They're that close—and that good. I wish I could have picked three, and included the Raiders' Bill Pickel.

The most intriguing position is quarterback. Something has been spooking them this year. Of the top-20-rated quarterbacks at this stage of the 1984 season, 14 are ranked lower now, some dramatically so—by almost 30 points. Why? Probably the more liberal pass defense rules this year, possibly more sophisticated defenses, or more injuries along the offensive line. Anyway, they're having a rougher time, and I had trouble finding one clear stick-out. The Chargers' Dan Fouts comes closest. He's one of the few whose rating is up. I narrowed the race down to five finalists—Fouts, the Dolphins' Dan Marino, the Jets' Ken O'Brien, the Bears' Jim McMahon and the Bengals' Boomer Esiason. Then I looked for impact, and it became a two-man race, Fouts vs. Marino. Marino's season was a two-parter, B.D. and A.D., Before Duper and After Duper. When the gifted little wideout came back from his injury, so did Danny's big numbers. Fouts was more consistent. The payoff came in Week 14 against the Steelers. Pittsburgh had limited opposing passers to an incredibly low 9.95 yards per completion, with the opposing wideouts averaging only 12 yards per catch, but Fouts killed them with the long ball, hitting his wideouts, Charlie Joiner and Wes Chandler, 11 times for an average of 24 yards a pop. That swung it.

Riggs's season (1,561 yards), for a 3-12 team, defies logic. There's no way I can leave him out. Or the Bears' Walter Payton, tireless, ageless, cranking out those nine 100-yard games like a machine until the Jets stopped him at 53 on Saturday. Or Marcus Allen, who has been carrying the Raiders' offense for most of the season. How can you omit Roger Craig, the 49ers ask. He's carrying our offense, too. O.K., so who gets bumped? Or how about the most exotic specimen of all, the Chargers' 5'6" Lionel (Little Train) James? A Buddy Young reincarnation. Yeah, I'd like to pick all of them, but there's only room for two—make that three—Riggs, Payton and Allen.

As usual, the wide receivers were bunched: Dallas's Tony Hill, Washington's Art Monk and Gary Clark, Pittsburgh's John Stallworth and Louis Lipps, Seattle's Steve Largent, Philly's Mike Quick and Green Bay's James Lofton. I went down the season, game by game, and looked for consistency—who performed the best week after week, who was the biggest factor in his team's offense? Largent and Quick emerged. They had one common virtue—the attack would be lost without them. Largent is enjoying his fourth 70-catch-plus year out of the last five. Quick had a streak of six straight TD-catch games; two of the receptions won games.

The Raiders' Todd Christensen has the tight end spot to himself. Cleveland's Ozzie Newsome was down in the numbers as the attack went to the ground. San Diego's Kellen Winslow was hurt. A sleeper, though, is Houston's Jamie Williams, who blocks as well as any of them and who can catch the short or deep ball. The Jets' Mickey Shuler was the closest thing to a possession receiver the club had.

Jimbo Covert is a repeater at tackle. The Bears' running game is most effective when it's lefthanded, and he's the rock on that side. I like the Colts' Chris Hinton because he's one of the few tackles in this era of bench-pressers and stranglers who actually fires out and delivers a pop. Joe Jacoby of the Washington Redskins, unfortunately, was down with a sprained knee for part of the season.

Washington's Russ Grimm is a surviving Hog who maintained a consistently high level of play at guard while the world was crumbling around him. He was forced through necessity to move to tackle for two games, but we'll forget about those. Cincinnati's 300-pound Brian Blados doesn't look pretty, but he's got nifty feet for a big guy, and when the Bengals are clicking offensively he's usually burying somebody. The Patriots' John Hannah had a depressing, injury-laden year. He played at about half speed. The Giants' Chris Godfrey is a comer.

A few weeks ago I asked one of the Jets' offensive linemen how he liked the new line coach this year. "You mean Joe Fields?" he said. I don't think he was kidding. Fields runs the show from his center spot, and he's having a terrific year, his best of the 11 that he has been around. Dwight Stephenson of Miami will be the consensus All-Pro again. Fields might not even make the Pro Bowl squad. Don't get me wrong. Stephenson's one of the best ever, but I just don't think he had the season Fields did.

On defense, my ends are Howie Long of the Raiders, a repeater, and the Broncos' Rulon Jones. Long is the consummate flankman: plays the run, rushes the passer. He won't lead the league in sacks because he moves inside on passing downs. Jones, after many years of getting close, finally came into his own this year. He was always a good pass rusher. Now he's a complete player. Mark Gastineau of the Jets was slowed by injuries but he's still the league's premier sacker, although the Giants' Leonard Marshall, a rough, physically overpowering type of rusher, has the big numbers with 14.5 sacks.

There have never been as many great noseguards as there are now. Klecko moved inside from defensive end and became the hub of the Jets' defense with his relentless pressure up the middle. But I can't honestly say he's better than Cincinnati's Krumrie, who goes sideline to sideline and never lets up. The first few times I saw him I couldn't believe how good he was so I made a few phone calls. The answers were always the same: "He killed us." The Raiders' Pickel had an impressive year. So did the Giants' Jim Burt, my pick last season, and Seattle's Joe Nash and the Browns' Bob Golic...hey, this list seems endless. This definitely is the golden age of noseguards.

Tackles are a vanishing breed in the 4-3. A lot of people who played the Bears wish Steve McMichael would vanish, too. Every time you watch their defense, he's exploding up the middle, making things happen. His teammate, Dan Hampton, is a fine player who was held down by injuries. In a normal year the Cowboys' Randy White would be our choice again, but McMichael simply came on too strong.

Once upon a time you automatically penciled in the Giants' Lawrence Taylor at outside linebacker and searched around for another guy to fill the hand. Not this year. Oh, he's still pure hell when he's rushing the passer, but the rest of his game has taken a strange turn. At times he seemed to be in a fog. The Patriots' Andre Tippett and the Bears' Otis Wilson, who has finally arrived, were more consistent.

Denver's Karl Mecklenburg and the Jets' Lance Mehl represent the two styles of inside-linebacker play. Mecklenburg, who goes strong side in the base 3-4, turns pass rusher in the four-man nickel setup, and he has been devastating, especially working stunts with Rulon Jones on the right side. Mehl, who switched from the right outside to the weak inside spot this year, is more in coverage, although he has been an effective blitzer. The Bears' Mike Singletary still rules the 4-3 middle linebacker kingdom.

I had three cornerbacks on my list, Mike Haynes of the Raiders, the 49ers' Eric Wright and LeRoy Irvin of the Rams. Irvin was my sentimental choice. I love the way he plays the force and throws himself in front of the tidal wave, but it's still basically a coverage position, so sentiment took a dive and I went with Wright and Haynes, who started off slowly but came on strong in the stretch.

I saw the Cardinals' strong safety Leonard Smith four times this year. Maybe I just caught Smith on a great day each time, or I didn't see the Seahawks' Kenny Easley on some of his better ones, but I can only go on what the two eyes tell me, so Smith gets the nod. If I were giving an award for heroism through the years, the Colts' Nesby Glasgow would get it. Free safety was a position loaded with talent this season. The Cowboys' Michael Downs, the Giants' Terry Kinard, Kansas City's Deron Cherry were outstanding, but none made the impact that Philly's Wes Hopkins did.

I've never picked a nickelback before for the simple reason that their assignments are so different. Some play a cornerback role, some of them are linebackers or strong safeties. Every time I saw the Rams' Vince Newsome, though, something was always happening around him—bodies were flying, the ball was popping loose.

For field goals and extra points, Eddie Murray of the Lions (18 of 19 from 30 yards and longer, after 15 games) is our guy, but three or four others have equally impressive credentials. The punters were easier to sort out. Ever since they started being graded on net yardage nine years ago only one man has ever netted 38 or better, Miami's Reggie Roby, 38.1 in 1984. The Rams' Dale Hatcher is at 38.0 now. His ratio of touchbacks (six) to shots placed inside the 20-yard line (31) is the best of anyone's, except for Buffalo's John Kidd, and Hatcher beats him on both net and gross yardage. Hatcher's single most impressive talent is being able to boom one and then have it bounce straight up, whereupon it's downed in the shadow of the end zone, usually by Newsome.

Our Player of the Year is Marcus Allen, based on one criterion: Where would the Raiders be without him? Our Coach of the Year is Chicago's Mike Ditka. Everyone else's, too. For Rookie of the Year we went to a skill position—offensive tackle. You're darn right it takes skill to block Howie Long and those guys. The Falcons' Bill Fralic is our man. He also went part-time at guard. A future superstar. How do you think Riggs got all those yards?



San Diego's Fouts is the choice at quarterback, mainly because of his consistency.



Christensen (above) was the right man at the right time for the Raiders; McMichael was a grizzly on defense for Chicago.



[See caption above.]



Mecklenburg has firmed up Denver's defense, as L.A.'s Frank Hawkins discovered.



By keeping an eye peeled for opportunity, Hinton became one of the few Colt heroes.


WR—MIKE QUICK, Philadelphia
G—RUSS GRIMM, Washington
G—BRIAN BLADOS, Cincinnati
T—CHRIS HINTON, Indianapolis


E—HOWIE LONG, L.A. Raiders
NG—TIM KRUMRIE, Cincinnati
FS—WES HOPKINS, Philadelphia
CB—ERIC WRIGHT, San Francisco


Nickelback—VINCE NEWSOME, L.A. Rams

Player of the Year—MARCUS ALLEN, L.A. Raiders
Rookie of the Year—BILL FRALIC, Atlanta
Coach of the Year—MIKE DITKA, Chicago