Few players in NFL history have changed the way the game is played. Lawrence Taylor is one of them.
The New York Giants’ Hall of Famer brought the position of outside linebacker a level of visibility and prestige it had never seen before. Before Taylor, outside linebackers took a more reactive approach by dropping back in coverage. After Taylor, they took a more aggressive approach by forcing action at the line of scrimmage.
Taylor also changed the approach of offenses, as teams used extra tight ends to block him instead of using running backs, which was the norm at the time for blocking blitzing linebackers. Because of Taylor, the left tackle also rose in importance, since the position is primarily responsible for protecting the blind side of right-handed quarterbacks.
Taylor’s unique talent was evident before he ever put on an NFL uniform. The All-American from the University of North Carolina possessed speed, strength, aggressiveness and a non-stop motor. No player was more relentless in his pursuit of the quarterback.
The Tar Heel phenom was selected by the Giants with the second overall pick of the 1981 NFL Draft, and immediately took the league by storm. He became the first player in history to win Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. He recorded 133 tackles, 9½ sacks (still an unofficial stat in 1981) and two forced fumbles.
Taylor’s impact on the Giants’ defense was immediate, as the team went from 27th in points allowed in 1980 to third in 1981. The team also made the postseason for the first time in 18 years. Their 27-21 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card Round was their first playoff win since 1958.
Taylor had an equally impressive sophomore season in 1982, once again winning Defensive Player of the Year. The All-Pro linebacker had 7½ sacks in the strike-shortened 9-game season, and returned an interception 97 yards for a touchdown in a 13-6 win over the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving.
After another All-Pro season in 1983, but a second straight losing year for the team, Taylor and the Giants were back in the playoffs in 1984. His three sacks in two postseason games were the first of his playoff career, and the year also marked his first double-digit sack season with 11½.
In 1985, Taylor increased his sack total to 13. The Giants once again made the postseason, but were defeated in the Divisional Round for the second straight year.
After three Wild Cards in five years, New York won its first division title since 1963 and set a franchise record with 14 wins in 1986. Taylor added to his budding Hall of Fame resume with a league-leading 20½ sacks, 105 tackles and two forced fumbles. He also received his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections, and became the first player in NFL history to win three Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Another historic first occurred on January 25, 1987, as the Giants made their first-ever Super Bowl appearance. After outscoring the San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins by a combined score of 66-3 in the NFC playoffs, Taylor and the Giants’ defense dominated John Elway and the Denver Broncos in a 39-20 win in Super Bowl XXI to claim their first Vince Lombardi Trophy.
The Giants missed the playoffs in both 1987 and 88, but Taylor was still the same disruptive force. He had 12 sacks and three interceptions in 12 games in strike-shortened 1987, and recorded 15½ sacks in 12 games in 1988 after a 30-day drug suspension forced him to miss four games.
The 1988 season provided one of the defining moments of Taylor’s career. On November 27, he had three sacks and two forced fumbles while playing with a torn pectoral muscle in a 13-12 win over the New Orleans Saints. The game was a testament to Taylor’s toughness, an attribute that would be revealed the next season as well.
The Giants returned to the playoffs in 1989, going 12-4 and winning another division title. Taylor led the NFL’s second-ranked defense with 15 sacks, despite playing with a fractured tibia suffered late in the season. He was named First Team All-Pro for the eighth time in his career, the most ever by a linebacker.
Despite two sacks by Taylor, the Giants were upset by the Los Angeles Rams 19-13 in the Divisional Round of the 1989 playoffs, but they would be back on the big stage the following season.
On January 20, 1991, Taylor had a half sack and a key fumble recovery to set up the game-winning field goal in a 15-13 win over the 2-time defending champion San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park in the NFC Championship Game. The next week New York defeated the Buffalo Bills 20-19 in the closest Super Bowl in history, giving Taylor his second ring. The season marked the 10th and final Pro Bowl for Taylor, and his last double-digit sack season with 10½.
The Super Bowl season of 1990 was the last for Bill Parcells as Head Coach of the Giants, who would miss the playoffs in 1991. The year also began a decline for Taylor, whose production slipped due to age and injury. He missed a combined nine games and averaged only six sacks per season from 1991-93.
The greatest outside linebacker to ever play the game retired following the 1993 season, and was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1999.
Taylor’s career numbers include 132½ sacks (142 including 9½ from 1981 when sacks were still an unofficial stat), 1,088 tackles, 33 forced fumbles, 11 fumble recoveries, nine interceptions and two touchdowns. In 15 career postseason games, he had 8½ sacks, a fumble recovery and an interception.