April 28, 2010

1981: Giants Draft Lawrence Taylor in 1st Round

Since appearing in the 1963 NFL Championship game, the New York Giants had settled into a long period of mediocrity. From the advent of divisional play in 1933 through ’63, the club had gone 226-123-19 with 16 postseason appearances and three championships. From 1964 through 1980, the record was 84-156-4; not only were there no playoff appearances, but the Giants posted just two records over .500 in that 17-year span.

The performance in 1980 hardly indicated that improvement might be coming anytime soon. New York struggled through an injury-riddled 4-12 season. The linebacker corps had been especially hard hit, with Harry Carson, Brian Kelley, Dan Lloyd, John Skorupan, and Frank Marion all missing time. At one point in November, a free agent named Joe McLaughlin, who had failed to catch on with two clubs in 1979 and was painting houses in Wisconsin for a living, was called in on a Monday, passed his physical, worked out twice, played on special teams the following Sunday and then was in the starting lineup the next week (he actually led the team with 10 tackles). As a result, the Giants ranked 24th in the NFL in total defense (26th against the run, 17th vs. the pass).

On April 28, 1981 the Giants, using the second pick in the first round of the NFL draft, chose Lawrence Taylor, a linebacker from North Carolina (New Orleans used the first pick to take RB George Rogers, the Heisman Trophy winner from South Carolina).

There had been some question in the run-up to the draft as to whether New York would take Taylor or UCLA running back Freeman McNeil (eventually chosen by the other New York club, the Jets). Linebacker was considered one of the team’s strengths (at least, with the expectation that all hands would be healthy) and there was a need to improve the running game. The situation was further muddied by talk from some of the veteran players that they would boycott if the team drafted Taylor and gave him the three-year, $1 million deal that his agent was reportedly intending to seek. A ruffled Taylor had sent a telegram to Giants GM George Young the night before the draft asking that they not choose him.

In the end, of course, Young did choose Taylor (he signed a three-year deal, but for $900,000), and it marked a significant step in the reinvigorating of the franchise. Head Coach Ray Perkins, looking ahead to the ’81 season, said “Taylor should start on the weakside for us. He’ll have to earn that, of course, but from everything we’ve seen and everything we know about him, I have no doubt he’ll become a dominating player.”

Perkins was very much on the mark. Playing in a 3-4 defense, Taylor lined up with veteran Brad Van Pelt at the other outside linebacker position and Kelley and Carson on the inside and almost immediately displayed the dominance anticipated for him. He received the most votes in Pro Bowl balloting and was selected as NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press, as well as Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Defense was the key to the Giants finishing 9-7 and grabbing the second wild card spot to make it into the postseason for the first time since that long-ago 1963 title game (they upset Philadelphia, 27-21, in the first round but succumbed to the 49ers in the divisional playoff). While the offense was the lowest-ranked in the league – young QB Phil Simms was still a work in progress, and missed five games due to injury – the defense keyed the improvement. Taylor was a big part of that surge, although there were also key contributions by rookie NT Bill Neill and second-year CB Mark Haynes. Defensive ends George Martin and Gary Jeter had outstanding seasons as well.

Taylor, however, would prove to be not only the unit’s leader over the course of 13 years, but one of the most dominating defensive players in pro football history. At 6’3” and 237 pounds, he re-defined the position of linebacker, proving to be an almost unstoppable pass rusher as well as run-stuffer. More than outstanding outside linebackers of the past, he brought an attacking element into his play that transformed the game and made him a weapon that opposing offenses continually needed to account for. While drug issues eventually dogged him off the field, the intensity level never dropped while on it.

By the time the player known as “LT” retired, he had been named league MVP on one occasion (1986), always notable for a defensive player, and Defensive Player of the Year three times. Taylor was a consensus first team All-Pro eight times and was selected to 10 Pro Bowls. His number 56 was retired by the Giants, and he was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999.

Thanks to George Young’s personnel moves (hired as GM in 1979 in a compromise between the feuding team owners, Wellington Mara and his nephew Tim), which so notably included the drafting of Taylor and, in 1983, the promotion of Bill Parcells to head coach, the Giants again became a perennial contender. From 1981 through ’90, the last season with Parcells at the helm, the team had a 90-61 record, went to the postseason six times, and won the Super Bowl twice. Arguably more than any other player on the team, Taylor personified the change in attitude and direction.