The Pro Football Hall of Fame is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013. To commemorate this milestone, NFL Media historian Elliot Harrison is picking his Hall of Fame 50th Anniversary Team. Selecting from the pool of more than 200 players voted into Canton, Ohio, there are sure to be disagreements. Hit up Elliot at @Harrison_NFL to share your opinion.
Put the accolades aside; LT's greatness jumped off the screen via the eyeball test. Watching any Giants game in the '80s, it immediately became clear that No. 56 was the best player on the field -- even when he shared it with Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, or fellow defensive dynamo Reggie White. Yes, those three enjoyed a longer prime than Taylor, but from 1981 to 1989, there was no better player in football. Period. During that time frame, he earned Associated Press first-team All-Pro honors in every season except for one -- when he still got the nod from United Press International and Pro Football Weekly. From 1984 through '89, LT recorded 87.5 sacks, even with offenses doing everything they could to stop him. He was a terror against the run -- and running away from him didn't help, as he flat out tracked down end runs to the opposite side, time and again. LT was clutch, too. His 97-yard pick-six won a game at Detroit in 1982. And another interception-return TD in the 1986 divisional playoffs pretty much knocked out the 49ers in a game that ended up being a 49-3 rout. His strip of Roger Craig in the 1990 NFC Championship Game prevented a Niners three-peat and helped the Giants claim their second Super Bowl title. LT's ability to edge rush from an OLB spot changed two positions forever: outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense and left tackle. Yes, we got those mammoth dudes of Ogden-esque proportions because of Taylor's decimation of offenses in the 1980s, as chronicled in Michael Lewis' book "The Blind Side." Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, DeMarcus Ware, LaMarr Woodley and Clay Matthews all owe Taylor a beer for the contracts they've signed.
Smart, instinctive, great football IQ. Ham was a sure tackler who could diagnose plays very quickly, and he was also able to handle the quickest of backs in coverage. The 1970s was the decade when running backs really started to get involved in the passing game, eventually giving rise to the third-down back. Ham could handle them all. It is said that, from zero to 10 yards, Ham was faster than any other Steeler. There were those within the organization who felt that he was the club's best player. Ham certainly belonged in that conversation with "Mean" Joe Greene, as he also played an integral role on the four Super Bowl-winning teams of the '70s. Ham's 53 career takeaways remain the highest figure ever by a non-defensive back.
Competition at outside linebacker: While Taylor is undoubtedly the greatest outside linebacker to ever walk this earth, a couple of OLBs did push Ham a bit. Bobby Bell was widely recognized as one of the finest athletes of his day, and certainly one of the AFL's premier defenders. His Chiefs won the last AFL-NFL Super Bowl in January of 1970. Ted Hendricks was a fantastic linebacker and prolific kick blocker, returning serve on over 20 boots in a ridiculously successful 15-year career. (Hendricks made his eighth Pro Bowl as a 36-year-old linebacker in 1983.) Rickey Jackson and Andre Tippett were LT clones, annually ranking in the top five at the position. Lastly, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better pass rusher than Derrick Thomas.
Toughest cut: No one -- Taylor and Ham stood out above the rest.
When Associated Press voters deem a guy the fifth-greatest player of the 20th century -- and The Sporting News says he's ninth -- it becomes very hard to select someone other than that guy at middle linebacker. Ferocious, bright and unbelievably tough, Dick Butkus had just the right concoction of talents for the NFL of his time. That era rewarded toughness over pass coverage. Middle linebackers of the day -- like Sam Huff, Ray Nitschke and Willie Lanier -- were required to be true defensive quarterbacks. So much of pro football in that era was of the "check with me" variety -- i.e., check with the middle linebacker for alignments/assignments. Butkus not only flourished in this role, but he routinely knocked the snot out of the best players in the league. He was also "Peanut" Tillman before "Peanut" Tillman, constantly ripping the ball loose mid-tackle. Too bad giving the ball back to the offense was a lesson in frustration, as nearly all of the Bears teams Butkus played on stunk.
Competition at middle linebacker: One of the tougher calls on the list. Joe Schmidt, another Bears great in Bill George and Nitschke all merit serious consideration. If Jack Ham was the brains of the Steelers outfit, Jack Lambert was the lumber. And then there's Lanier, who by all accounts was as good as any player in the AFL. He was called "The Black Butkus," which should tell you something about our selection. What's really crazy is that the Bears have three guys who could be considered at MLB; in addition to Butkus and George, Mike Singletary was the premier player at the position in the 1980s. But the two players who gave Butkus a real run for the money were Huff and Chuck Bednarik. Both are living legends, constantly regarded with reverent tones for the way they played and the legacies they left on the game. Each won at least one NFL championship: Huff won his in 1956, while Bednarik, the last of the 60-minute men, added his second in 1960 (after winning one as a rookie in 1949).