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Super Bowl LVI put Aaron Donald into the NFL’s pantheon of legendary defenders

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 13:00, 19 February 2022 | Updated: 21:49, 5 July 2022

For the second time in about a year, the Super Bowl has left us contemplating where a contemporary NFL superstar sits in the pantheon of all-time greats. In the aftermath of SB LV, Tom Brady got GOATed. Where does SB LVI leave Aaron Donald? 

More than in just about any other sport, the comprehensive, position-agnostic ranking of American football players is an exceedingly tall order. This is in no small part because each position, with its own roles, responsibilities and required skill sets, is specialised to a degree that it bears, at most, a passing resemblance to most of the others.

Now, we must acknowledge goalkeepers in European football and ice hockey, pitchers and catchers in baseball, bowlers and wicketkeepers in cricket. Otherwise, most athletes are employing similar skill sets for only slightly different jobs. 

In basketball, for instance, at some point, every player holds the ball, is required to dribble, pass, shoot and play defense. It’s the same in hockey: stick-handling the puck, skating, checking, passing, shooting. European football? Same story. Every outfield player, at some point, dribbles, passes, shoots and tackles. These skills are used differently by different types of players, but the collection of skills is the same.

This is not the case American football, where defensive players do not get to have the ball very often, and, on the rare occasions that they do, barring a return for a touchdown right then, must turn it over to the offense. On offense, while quarterbacks and skill position players are themselves highly specialised and positionally distinct from one another, there are, at least, statistical measures that can contextualise their performances: completions, receptions, pass, rushing and receiving yards, touchdowns, yards per attempt/rush/reception, etc.

Defensive positions, meanwhile, carry a more disparate set of responsibilities and expectations that makes it difficult to even anecdotally compare the performances of different types of players – a cornerback vs. a defensive tackle, for instance – let alone develop some statistical measure to apply uniformly to all defenders. Even the defensive statistics that we do have – sacks, interceptions, tackles, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, fumbles recovered, passes defended – tell only so much of a player’s story.

Thus, the difficulty in objectively assessing individual defenders – especially across eras in which the game itself has come to resemble a different sport – and assembling ‘all-time best’ lists. Eh, who needs science, right??

First, of course, there are stats. These statistical wonders write their names in history through either incredible peaks or a sustained runs of excellence – defensively, this basically means sacks and interceptions. But, as we just mentioned, this will only get us part of the way home.

Then we have the universally respected, but not statistically awe-inspiring all-pro. These guys tend to play on great teams – again, we are talking about legitimate greats who dominate with talent around them, not merely good-to-very-good players who are fan favorites or plucky overachievers. This breed of player is coated in a sheen of victory that compensates for any statistical shortcoming.

Finally, there is what can only be described as the ‘hushed tones’ great. Most great players make amazing plays and occasionally astound us. More often than not, however, they don’t leave fans’ – let alone teammates’ and opponents’ – minds blown as to the very nature of their existence. These are the select few. A combination of the first two archetypes, mixed with a proprietary blend of physical dominance, technical acumen and competitiveness that leaves other professional athletes, many of them stars in their own rights, speaking incoherently, as though describing some mythical being.

Making such a list feels like something of an exercise in madness, as the whittling-down process involves little more than sniffing around for, if not ‘faults’, then athletic mortality in the bodies of work of the greatest players to ever play the game. In the end, you hope that what you wind up with a reasonable list of the very best ‘hushed tones defensive players’ the game’s ever had to offer:

Lawrence Taylor, New York Giants, 1981-1993

There’s probably no player in NFL history with gaudier statistics that mean less to his legacy. Over the course of his career, ‘LT’ recorded (in the regular season) 142 sacks, recovered 11 fumbles, and intercepted nine passes, two of which he returned for touchdowns – and another against Joe Montana in the 1986 playoffs.

He was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1981, when he also won the first of his three Defensive Player of the Year awards, and league MVP in 1986. He was selected to the Pro Bowl each of his first ten seasons in the league, named as an All-Pro on eight occasions, and won a pair Super Bowl titles. And yet…

His unfathomable combination of power, speed, versatility, technique and unhinged competitiveness that left virtually everyone that ever played or coached against him describing the helplessness of the experience. He was pulled out of drills during his first practice after being draft #2 overall in 1981, out of fear for the quarterbacks’ safety, because he didn’t know how to slow down, and no one on the team could block him.

Taylor is often described the single toughest defensive player in history to game plan against. In the words of former Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Brian Baldinger: “The whole game plan was LT. Otherwise, he was going to ruin you.”

Adding an extra layer to his dominance and devastation was that, once he’d seen a play, formation or move once, his gifts for identifying it in the future and shutting it down were unparalleled. His opponents had illusions of actually stopping Taylor – they just hoped to occasionally inconvenience him.

Perhaps Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick – defensive coordinator with the Giants during LT’s prime – said it best, when a report attempted to compare a modern-day star to Taylor:

“Wait a minute, we’re talking about Lawrence Taylor now! I’m not putting anybody in Lawrence Taylor’s class. Put everybody down below that. With a lot of respect to a lot of good players, we’re talking about Lawrence Taylor.”

Reggie White, Philadelphia Eagles (1985-92), Green Bay Packers (1993-98) Carolina Panthers (2000)

The late Reggie White terrorised not only opposing quarterbacks, but also the mammoth offensive linemen tasked with keeping those QBs upright. This consummate leader, a spiritual advisor (a deacon following his retirement from football) and jokester combined arguably the most power (especially in the massive right arm he’d use to toss 300-pound men aside) the NFL has ever seen in a pass rusher with a hilarious complement of moves and countermoves – going either left or right – to devastating effect.

After two years in the short-lived rival league, the USFL, White joined the Philadelphia Eagles, who were coached by the architect of the ruthless 1985 Bears defense, Buddy Ryan. After recording 13 sacks in his first NFL season (1985), White posted tallies of 18, 21 (in a shortened 12 game season) and 18 over the next three years, and recorded at least 10 sacks in eight of the 10 seasons following that – including a 16-sack showing at age 37 in 1998. White had 124 sacks in 121 games in eight seasons with the Eagles.

In 1993, as the first big-ticket free agent in NFL history, White moved on from Philly, to Green Bay. Though his prolific sack pace slowed a bit in Green Bay (68.5 in six seasons), he still retired as the all-time leader, with 198 (he’s now second). Every bit as importantly, however, White’s arrival powered the Packers’ defense to the top of the league and, in 1996, along with Brett Favre, he led the Pack to their first Super Bowl win in nearly three decades. In that Super Bowl, White registered a whopping three sacks – which broke his tie with Lawrence Taylor for the most three-sacks games (regular season and playoff) since the NFL began tracking sacks in 1982.

Chances are, you’ve never seen a 320-pound man get tossed around like a rag doll. Chances are, if you have, it was Reggie White who was putting on the demonstration.

https://youtube.com/shorts/Aj2PDfGwmWw?feature=share

Ronnie Lott, San Francisco 49ers (1981-90), Los Angeles Raiders (1991-92), New York Jets (1993-94)

Ronnie Lott is remembered, with good reason, as NFL history’s preeminent hitter out of the secondary. Though he weighed not much more than 200 pounds, Lott made it his business, from the strong safety position, to launch his gigantic shoulder pads into the chest of any receiver brave enough to go across the middle of the field or any running back with the misfortune to try to hit the hole that Lott had decided to plug. And, recall, this was in an era in which ‘concussion protocols’ were nowhere to be found in the sport’s vernacular, and ‘player safety’ barely extended beyond, ‘if you can walk, you can play’.

However, it’s important to note that Lott was not merely a human heat-seeking missile. A first-round pick out of USC, Lott spent his first NFL seasons as one of the 49ers starting quarter cornerbacks. In those four season, he was selected to the Pro Bowl four times, having intercepted 17 passes, and scored four touchdowns off of opponents’ turnovers.

He was powerful, fast, smooth in his movement, absurdly intense, and incredibly intelligent. What Joe Montana was to the Niners’ offense, Lott was for the defense – an anchor, a beacon, a tone-setter. And an extremely gifted one. Lott led the 49ers’ defense in each of the franchise’s first four Super Bowl wins.

Over the course of a 14-year, Hall of Fame career, the six-time All-Pro nabbed 63 interceptions (tied for eighth all time), five of which went back for touchdowns (he had another nine picks and two 2 TDs in the playoffs), and 16 forced fumbles, and 17 recovered fumbles. Again, though, as great as the numbers are, the greatness of Ronnie Lott lay in the brilliant brutality of his game.

Lott’s friend, college teammate and fellow Hall of Famer, running back Marcus Allen, described him as ‘a destroyer’… not unlike the next man on this list.

Dick Butkus, Chicago Bears, 1965-73

The epitome of a ‘hushed-tone guy’. Of course, video of him does exist, and his career, though faded into history, remains recent enough that some of those who witness it are still around today to share the tales. Now, it must be said that the video from those days is grainy and incomplete, and the secondhand accounts of Butkus’ feats do sound a bit like ‘big fish’ stories, of a giant, sentient statue, come to life and looking to inflict punishment on all in his path.

However, all of the accounts Butkus was a cultured and talented linebacker who mastered and redefined the middle linebacker position. Butkus was a top-tier athlete – big, fast, quick, and with incredible power, both sustained and in short bursts. Beyond that, he’s celebrated for his intelligence and cerebral approach to the game.

And for his legendary meanness and ability to provoke fear. In his own words: 

‘We all have it. If you don’t, you’re an idiot. In fact, every player who has ever put on a jersey and pads has experienced fear. The trick is to feel the fear and rise above it. The only way I know to do that is to get good and mad.’

Butkus would internalise anything that resembled a slight – whether real or of his own mind’s creation – and channel it toward the punishing of an opponent. Player safety has come a long way since Ronnie Lott’s days. It hadn’t even started its journey in Butkus’ era.

Whether via a massive forearm or a shoulder,  the hits delivered to ball carriers by Butkus seem to stand out more than those delivered by any of his contemporaries. In fact, his own legendary teammate, running back Gale Sayers, said that the hardest hits he ever took were courtesy of Butkus in practice.

The best summation probably comes from legendary Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown – the consensus best to ever play the position – who refers to Butkus as:

‘Unequivocally out of control. The ideal linebacker…. When football players sit around, discuss guys they admire, they talk about Butkus.’

It’s now that we arrive at the doorstep of one Aaron Donald.

Writing about Aaron Donald is a bit like writing about Lionel Messi. Any attempt to succinctly sum up his greatness quickly starts to sound silly. The superlatives all apply, yet feel woefully insufficient. We use terms like ‘powerful’, ‘dominant’, ‘disruptive’, ‘destructive’ and ‘evolutionary’ quite freely. Few players, regardless of era or position, more thoroughly embodied every last one of these.

Defensive tackles aren’t readily associated with massive sack numbers. Donald’s got 98 in 127 games. Not bad for a guy who’s routinely triple-teamed. Football Reference has tackles-for-loss (TFL) data going back to 1999. Over those last 22 years, only one defensive tackle, Calais Campbell, has more than Donald’s 150 – he needed 86 more games to rack up 11 more TFL, with fewer sacks. Since 2006, no DT has more QB hits than Donald’s 226, despite each of the six players behind Donald having played more games.

The one time he failed to earn an All-Pro selection (he’s got seven), he won Defensive Rookie of the Year. Three years later, he won Defensive Player of the Year. Then after that, he did it again. After a shameful fifth-place finish (despite 12.5 sacks, a league-high 20 TFL and 24 QB hits), he returned to his perch, with not only a third DPoY award, but (by Football Reference’s Approximate Value metric) arguably the best individual defensive season in the history of the league.

Even before the events of last Sunday, he’d turned in nearly the greatest eight-year run to begin a career by defensive player in NFL history.

Now, not only has Donald got a Super Bowl ring, but he was singlehandedly responsible for two of the most iconic plays of that game – tackling a 250-pound running back with a single arm on 3-and-1, and following it up with the game-killing pressure on Joe Burrow – Aaron Donald’s name will forever reside alongside those of the game’s foremost greats.

Perhaps this is not a comprehensive list of the most mesmerising and awe-inducing defenders in NFL history. Surely many of you will have additions to suggest. However, one thing of which we can be certain is that that comprehensive lists will include these five names.

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