Very few defensive players have impacted the game in more ways than Ronnie Lott. The Hall of Famer not only played cornerback and both safety positions, but was named First Team All-Pro at all three.
The San Francisco 49ers drafted Lott with the eighth overall pick of the draft in 1981. The consensus All-American from USC made an immediate impact in the NFL, intercepting seven passes and returning three for touchdowns. He also recorded 89 tackles and two fumble recoveries. For his efforts, the rookie cornerback was named First Team All-Pro and selected to his first Pro Bowl.
Lott’s stellar play continued into the postseason, as he intercepted two more passes, including a pick six against the New York Giants in the Divisional Round. His dream season would end in the best possible way, with the 49ers winning their first Super Bowl with a 26-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
The success kept coming for Lott, as the young corner was named to the Pro Bowl the next three seasons. In 1984, he led the NFL’s top-ranked scoring defense to a 15-1 record and their second Super Bowl in four years. The 49ers defense dominated the postseason, highlighted by a 23-0 shutout of the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship Game and a 38-16 Super Bowl win over the most prolific passing offense in NFL history up to that point, Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins.
In 1985, Lott would make a position change. Switching a 4-time Pro Bowl cornerback to free safety in the prime of his career may have seemed like a strange move to some, but the move made sense for two reasons. First, Lott was a free safety at USC before becoming a corner in the NFL. Second, his hard-hitting style and combination of intelligence, instincts and ball skills made him a perfect fit for the position.
In his first season playing safety, Lott intercepted six passes, recovered two fumbles and recorded 104 tackles. The season also provided one of the NFL’s most legendary incidents.
In a game against the Dallas Cowboys in December, Lott broke his left pinky finger. The hard-nosed safety decided to ignore the injury, playing in the following week’s Wild Card Game against the Giants. When doctors told him he needed a pin placed in the finger for it to heal properly, and that surgery would cause him to miss part of the following season, Lott made a decision that is now part of NFL lore: have the tip of his finger amputated.
The choice allowed Lott to be ready for the 1986 season, his first full year as a safety and arguably the best season of his career. The Pro Bowler led the league with 10 interceptions, and had three forced fumbles, two sacks and 77 tackles. It was also his first of four seasons being named First Team All-Pro at free safety.
The years 1988 and 1989 brought more team success for Lott, as the 49ers won back-to-back Super Bowls, giving the undisputed team of the decade four in nine years.
In 1990 Lott would experience more change, this time on multiple levels. First, he was traded to the Los Angeles Raiders, returning to the same stadium he played in at USC. Second, he was moved to strong safety. The result should have been predictable for anyone who ever played with the future Hall of Famer. He intercepted eight passes, leading the NFL for the second time, and recorded 93 tackles. He was also named First Team All-Pro for the first time at his new position and the sixth time overall, and was selected to his 10th career Pro Bowl.
After spending the next season at strong safety for the Raiders, Lott relocated to the East Coast to play for the New York Jets. Switching back to free safety, he had three interceptions, six forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and 229 tackles over the next two seasons, his last in the NFL.
Lott’s legacy is undeniable. His combination of skill, intelligence and toughness became the blueprint for the modern defensive back. Legendary Dallas Cowboys Coach Tom Landry had this to say of Lott: “He’s like a middle linebacker playing safety. He’s devastating. He may dominate the secondary better than anyone I’ve seen.”
Hall of Fame voters agreed, as Lott was elected in his first year of eligibility in 2000. He finished his career with 63 interceptions, 17 fumble recoveries and over 1,100 tackles. In 20 postseason games, he had nine interceptions, two touchdowns and two fumble recoveries.