My 1986 All-Pro team represents the changing of the guard...and tackle, and tight end...and everything else on offense. There are no—repeat no—repeaters from 1985. Defensively, only four of last year's selections return. What's going on?
Injuries have hobbled some of the game's brightest stars. All-Pros like Marcus Allen, Howie Long, Joe Montana, Joe Klecko, Russ Grimm, Mike Haynes, Ken Easley, Joe Fields and Dan Fouts were either out of action or dragging their way through pain-wracked seasons. And young superstars have surfaced—sleepers and new faces who have exceeded the wildest expectations. You might find some names you'll have trouble recognizing. Thirteen of my selections have never been to a Pro Bowl. It's that kind of a year.
Quarterback seemed like a toss-up for a while, until I sat down and looked at Dan Marino's game-by-game performance. He was picked for the Pro Bowl last year, but this season he's ahead of 1985 in every measurable statistic, even though the Dolphins' running game is worse. There was another consideration: The Miami defense was so shaky that there was pressure on the offense to score every time it had the ball. Minnesota's Tommy Kramer had his best year ever. Washington's young Jay Schroeder excites you with his down-the-field fearlessness. But neither of them had the consistency of Marino. Tony Eason of the Patriots and Phil Simms of the Giants came up with some great last-minute heroics, but no one enjoyed the year Marino did.
Eric Dickerson holds down one running back spot. His yardage (1,753) speaks for itself. The Giants' Joe Morris beats out some worthy contenders—Chicago's Walter Payton, Seattle's Curt Warner, Atlanta's Gerald Riggs and New Orleans' Rueben Mayes—at the other. Why did we go with Little Joe, who isn't really a complete back because he comes out on passing downs? One reason: his ability to make something out of nothing. He's a master at turning a minus-two into a plus-five.
The wideouts also presented a lock and a shootout. Jerry Rice bailed the 49ers out of some desperate situations this year, particularly when Joe Montana was out. The second spot was tougher to pick. It came down to a three-way race between the Patriots' Stanley Morgan, the Jets' Al Toon and the Redskins' Gary Clark. Toon was brilliant for the first two-thirds of the season, then he tailed, as did the Jets' whole offense. Clark was consistent throughout. Both of them, though, had an effective wide receiver on the other side—Wesley Walker on the Jets and Art Monk on the Skins—to attract double-team attention. Morgan did not. He is the man.
Tight end was the toughest pick of all. Do you go with the supreme blocker, Mark Bavaro of the Giants, or the clutch receiver, particularly on third downs, Todd Christensen of the Raiders? Christensen saved L.A.'s offense this year. But Bavaro, a good receiver, is the best blocking TE since the Packers' Ron Kramer, so I went with him.
You won't see Minnesota tackle Gary Zimmerman on any All-Pro teams this year, but he answered one of the Vikings' most pressing needs—providing relief from back-side pressure on the QB. He's a big reason why Kramer enjoyed the success he did. The Rams' Jackie Slater, consistent on both run-and pass-blocking for many years, gets the nod over such perennials as Cincinnati's Anthony Munoz, Chicago's Jimbo Covert and Washington's Joe Jacoby, all of whom struggled at times.
I picked two superb drive blockers as my guards. Bill Fralic of Atlanta simply blows people off the line. His pass blocking is a bit behind. Everyone argued with me about my other selection, the Bears' Mark Bortz. "He's a butcher," one scout said. Right. A perfect description. Snarling, cursing, arms and legs flying, Bortz is probably the meanest offensive lineman in the league. I know the knock on him: Quick moves give him trouble on pass blocking. Sorry, he's still my guy. He provides the fire and life. Good grades, though, to the Giants' Billy Ard; the Saints' rising star, Brad Edelman; and the Jets' vastly underrated Dan Alexander.
Center is the most talent-laden position on the offensive line these days, and Dwight Stephenson of Miami is the most of the most. The Jets' Joe Fields was hurt. Denver's Billy Bryan is always solid, as is Pittsburgh's Mike Webster. Don Mosebar, the Raiders' best lineman this year, is a comer. Jay Hilgenberg of the Bears had a terrific year. So he's my All-Pro runner-up.
The Skins' Dexter Manley was the NFL's premier defensive end. Mucho sacks, plus great dedication and hustle against the run. The Broncos' Rulon Jones had to beat out a formidable trio—Seattle's Jacob Green, Kansas City's Art Still and Chicago's Richard Dent—to repeat at the other spot. Jones is at his best rushing from inside in four-man, long-yardage situations.
I picked one defensive tackle, the Eagles' Reggie White, on a close call over the Bears' Steve McMichael, and one noseguard, the Raiders' Bill Pickel. White was a one-man wrecking crew inside. Just ask opposing guards about him. Pickel gets the pick over many other sturdy performers (Cleveland's Bob Golic, Cincinnati's Tim Krumrie, San Francisco's Michael Carter, the Jets' Klecko and a rising star, Detroit's Eric Williams) because whenever the Raiders don't have the ball, Pickel is on the field—he moves to tackle in the Raiders' four-man rush.
Lawrence Taylor of the Giants is the best of the blitz-style outside linebackers. He's fully back to where he once was. Wilber Marshall of Chicago, a complete player—blitz and cover—gets the nod over the Giants' Carl Banks at the other outside spot. Banks and the Sea-hawks' Bruce Scholtz are the best at holding up the tight end. Seattle's Greg Gaines is terrific at pure coverage.
On the inside we picked one 4-3 linebacker, Chicago's Mike Singletary, a perennial who's in a class by himself, and one 3-4 man, Denver's Karl Mecklenburg, another repeater, whose style is constant hustle and constant involvement with everything happening near the line of scrimmage. Many pluses for Miami rookie John Offerdahl, who stood tall amid the defensive turmoil all about him, and for the Jets' Kyle Clifton.
Cleveland had the best pair of corner-backs, Hanford Dixon and Frank Minefield. Minnifield was the rougher of the two, a Mel Blount type. Dixon was the pure cover guy, and he's my pick. The other is Washington's Darrell Green, whose exceptional speed and recovery ability gives him the edge on Leroy Irvin of the Rams.
Leonard Smith is a strong safety repeater from '85. He played as if the Cardinals were on their way to the playoffs instead of back to the drawing board. Joey Browner of the Vikings is my runner-up. Free safety came down to a battle between the Chiefs' Deron Cherry and the Patriots' Fred Marion, with Cherry getting the nod based on his ball awareness and experience.
Morten Andersen, a finalist last year, is my kicker. The numbers tell the tale: He missed only four kicks for the Saints, and three of them were from outside the 50-yard line. He was the leading percentage kicker. The Jets' Pat Leahy, who came within one kick of the alltime consecutive field goal record of 23, is the runner-up.
My punter is the Giants' Sean Landeta, based on net average and hang time when it counted. The Colts' Rohn Stark had a fine year, but he kicked nine times in domed stadiums, without having to contend with the weather. The Skins' Steve Cox scored well on gross average, but I saw him put too many into the end zone from 40 yards out.
I've created a new position especially for San Diego's Gary Anderson, because I just couldn't leave him off the team. I call it the "Ain't," (ain't the running back, ain't the wideout). Anderson probably made more spectacular plays than anyone.
Player of the Year: Jerry Rice. Where would the 49ers have been without him? That was the criterion used for picking the Raiders' Marcus Allen last year, and it still holds. In the eight games Montana missed, Rice caught nine touchdown passes, five of them for 34 yards or more.
My Coach of the Year is Bill Parcells of the Giants. Jerry Burns, who lifted the Vikings from mediocrity to playoff contention, could have been a sentimental choice, but historically there have been too many sentimental choices winning such titles, with the result that people like Chuck Noll and Tom Landry never got their full due. Parcells, whose training camp was in turmoil, led the Giants to their first division championship in 23 years.
Finally, our Rookie of the Year. Rueben Mayes is chalk. After Sunday's games he had the second-best rushing average (4.8 yards per carry) in the NFC. My runner-up is the Dolphins' superb inside linebacker, Offerdahl. Our No. 3 guy is Houston's long-ball wide receiver, Ernest Givens; our No. 4 is the 49ers' reincarnation of Fred Dean, Charles Haley, a pass-rush specialist; and our sleeper is L.A. Rams guard Tom Newberry. Watch this guy. No blocker hits harder than he does.
Mayes, the Rookie of the Year, made the Saints' running game respectable.
PETER READ MILLER
Pickel, here nailing the Eagles' Randall Cunningham, was always on the scene.