Defensive Philosophy: Chaos
The offense always has one key advantage over the defense in football: they know where the ball is going. The offense gets to call its plays, make its decisions, and then must attempt to execute them. The defense is tasked with preventing the offense from executing its plan. In short, the offense acts, while the defense reacts.
The problem with this simple blueprint is that reacting requires familiarity. Defenses study and plan so that they will know what the offense wants to do, and they will know how best to prevent it. In this situation, however, humanity is entering the game blind; we know nothing about these aliens, their strategic tendencies, or their preferences. We cannot craft a game plan to shut down their offense when we don’t even know what that offense will look like. We are entering the most important match-up in the history of the sport without a shred of game film to prepare with.
My solution? Let’s reach back into history and bring back one of the very few great defensive schemes that was built on something other than reacting to what the offense showed. Let’s build a unit capable of dictating terms to the opposing offense instead of waiting around passively for terms to be dictated to them.
Let’s build a defense designed, not to shut down the opposition, but to sow the seeds of chaos and discord indiscriminately among the opposition and to steal the initiative from the wreckage.
Underdogs thrive on big, high-impact, high-variance plays. Sacks are their currency. Takeaways are their lifeblood. If we cannot hope to stop the opposition, let’s at least make them miserable.
As on offense, our defense will feature nominal starters, but in actuality will throw out wave after wave of fresh defenders designed to run their opponents ragged. Whereas on offense, our goal was diversity, on defense we’re looking strictly for elite pass rushers and ball-hawks. Run-stopping skills are a nice bonus, but the key goal at all times is generating pressure and turnovers.
DC: Buddy Ryan
Bill Belichick is probably the greatest defensive mind the league has seen. Bryan Frye of www.TheGridFe.com points out that if you visit the Hall of Fame, you can see three coaching game plans on display. Two of them were authored by Mr. Belichick.
If I was tasked with playing a best-of-three series against the invaders, there is no one I would rather have coordinating my defense in the second and third games than Belichick. But all the game-planning acumen in the world won’t help us when there’s nothing to plan for.
Instead, I opt for Buddy Ryan. Ryan’s game plan did not vary from opponent to opponent. His game plan was “get pressure, force mistakes, profit”. That is a plan that we can quickly mobilize and apply in our battle against the invaders with minimal adjustment necessary.
Ryan stands in stark contrast to my selection for offensive coordinator. If Bill Walsh is the philosopher king of the NFL, then Buddy Ryan is its ruthless despot. While Walsh would be likely to probe the intellectual underpinnings of the invasion and engage in Socratic dialogue to expose its weaknesses, Ryan would be more apt to just punch some aliens in the face. He is quite fond of punching.
And that’s uniquely human, too. The volatility, the rage, the unbalanced fury teetering always on the knife’s edge of control. Walsh comes to us from our tradition of artists and thinkers and creators and innovators. Ryan comes to us from our tradition of thugs and agitators and insurrectionists and revolutionaries. Many might consider Walsh’s approach to be the more noble of the two, but in what may be our final hour, we cannot hope to prevail unless we embrace the darker instincts of our nature, too.
Ryan’s defenses are the perfect embodiment of his temperament. They are mean, they are nasty, they are unpredictable. They are a roiling cauldron of sound and fury. In 1985, Ryan presided over perhaps the greatest defense the sport has known. In 1986, he took over a Philadelphia franchise that had ranked 28th, 22nd, and 25th in takeaways the previous three years. They ranked 1st or 2nd in the category in 3 of his 5 years, and the year after he left, they fielded a unit that joined his 1985 Bears in the discussion of the greatest defenses of all time.
Buddy Ryan would later spend a year coordinating the defense of the Houston Oilers. The year before he arrived, they were 18th in takeaways. The year after he left, they were 20th. The year he was there? They ranked 2nd in the NFL in takeaways.
For his efforts in Houston, he would be given the reigns of an Arizona team that had ranked 25th and 20th in takeaways the two prior seasons. In two years of his stewardship, Arizona ranked 4th and 1st in takeaways. After he left, they fell back to 25th and 29th. All told, Ryan’s defenses as a head coach or coordinator ranked in the top 2 in takeaways in a remarkable 6 of his final 9 seasons.
Every stop along the way, Ryan turned a sad-sack unit, (pun very much intended), into a terrifying whirling dervish of destruction. This isn’t to say that Ryan is without flaws. He was intemperate and constantly fighting with his own team. There’s a reason he had such an itinerant coaching career despite such consistent defensive success. He’s the man who I blamed earlier for damaging the career of Randall Cunningham.
But his flaws are our flaws. He sometimes represented the worst of our nature, but there is nothing in Buddy Ryan that isn’t in all of us. The aliens have expressed an interest in the emotions always seething just beneath the surface of our outward calm. They don’t know what they’re asking for. Buddy Ryan is the man to show them.
DE: *Deacon Jones
Deacon Jones wasn’t the run defender that some of our other pass-rushers were, but there might not have been a better man in history at getting to the quarterback. The man who coined the term “sack” and would have set many records if they were an official statistic while he was playing.
By some counts, Jones unofficially tallied 26 sacks in 1967 and 24 more in 1968, totals made doubly impressive by the fact that both came in a 14-game season. While his signature head slap has since been banned, I have no doubt that Jones’ size and power would have no trouble translating to a modern environment. Jones has said that his greatest regret is that he didn’t have the time to “kill more quarterbacks”. That kind of mindset is exactly what I’m looking for. I’m happy to give him one more shot.
Best known as the man who earned the single-season sack record in controversial fashion, (especially since it shouldn’t be a record in the first place, since it had been surpassed several times before sacks were an official statistic), Michael Strahan makes the team because he held up better against the run than any other modern pass rusher.
DE/DT – *J.J. Watt and Reggie White
- Bruce Smith
- Bob Lilly
J.J. Watt’s career is too short for us to seriously consider him the greatest defensive player of all time. Fortunately for this exercise, we don’t need a player’s entire career, we just need his one-game peak, and I feel quite comfortable based on what Watt has done so far in saying that, if he hasn’t had the highest peak of any defensive player in history, he’s certainly in the top five. Dominant against the pass and the run, Watt impacts offenses even when he doesn’t reach the quarterback; his 16 passes defensed as a DE in 2012 is the sort of stat that looks like it has to be a typo.
Reggie White, “The Minister of Defense”, needs no further introduction. He is already familiar with our defensive coordinator from their time together in Philadelphia, where White was a perennial All Pro. White has two more 12-sack seasons than any other player in history. He has two more 15-sack seasons than anyone else. He has one more 18-sack season than anyone else.
White won two defensive player of the year awards on two different teams, more than a decade apart. He was also wildly underrated against the run; while we obviously have incomplete data on both sack and tackle totals, we know of four seasons where a player had 15 sacks and 100 tackles. White was responsible for two of them.
Bruce Smith was the man who managed to battle Reggie White to a standstill for the title of “best defensive end in football”. He matched White’s production as a 3-4 end, a position that has traditionally struggled to reach the quarterback. Smith, like White, is one of several stellar pass-rushers capable of generating pressure as a 4-3 defensive end, 3-4 defensive end, or 4-3 defensive tackle, and the versatility of those players against the pass and their ability to hold up against the run is one of the key cornerstones of our defense.
Known as one of the greatest defensive tackles of all time, Bob Lilly began his career as a defensive end; based on his playing size, he projects more as a tweener end/tackle hybrid in our defense. Lilly was a first-team All Pro a remarkable seven times despite competing for honors against Merlin Olsen, Alan Page, and Joe Greene, (for my money, the three players who join Lilly on the Mt. Rushmore of defensive tackles).
Lilly makes my team over his peers because he was likely the best pass-rusher of the bunch, often playing in a unique “four-point stance” that helped him generate even more power off the snap as he rocketed into poor, overmatched interior linemen.
DT: *Albert Haynesworth
- Kris Jenkins
- Ted Washington
Albert Haynesworth is a mean cuss of a man, a dirty player who is all seething rage and barely-controlled passion. In short, he’s the perfect fit for our Buddy Ryan defense. If we were getting him at a random point in his career, Haynesworth would be a massive liability, a known malcontent with severe conditioning issues. Instead, we’re guaranteed the man who was such a disruptive nightmare for the 2008 Tennessee Titans that he became the first defensive player in history to sign a $100 million contract.
Kris Jenkins is another pure defensive tackle best known for his mean streak. He struggled with injuries throughout his career, barely reaching 100 career games, but in 2002-2003 with Carolina and 2008 with New York he was an immovable force of nature in the middle of the field, a devastating run-stopper who also managed to consistently force offensive linemen back several yards into the pocket, keeping quarterbacks uncomfortable and on their heels.
An outright mountain of a man, Ted Washington is the only player on my defense who makes the team despite being neither disruptive nor a ball-hawk. Instead, Washington is perhaps the best, (and almost certainly the biggest), nose tackle the league has ever known, a man whose playing weight was said to flirt with 400 pounds. Conditioning was a problem at his size, and he can probably only give us 30 snaps, but that’s all we need. No man in history could clog up the middle of the field in obvious running situations quite like Washington.
LBs: *Lawrence Taylor and *Ray Lewis
- Derrick Brooks
- Von Miller
- Demarcus Ware
- James Harrison
The key word so far on my defense seems to be “mean”, and Lawrence Taylor was perhaps the meanest of them all. A player who devastated opposing offenses, a man who teams spent all offseason drafting and game-planning to stop, almost always in vain. Lawrence Taylor was so good that he won Defensive Player of the Year as a rookie and later added a league MVP trophy to his case. If I were a betting man, I would wager that he is the single most common player selected in this exercise, and for very good reason.
Ray Lewis and Derrick Brooks were contemporaries, and from 1999 to 2005 they were in a heated dogfight for “best player at their position” that rivaled the one between Reggie White and Bruce Smith from a decade earlier. In history, only Jack Lambert can rival them in coverage, and there’s no telling how Lambert would handle modern coverage concepts.
Brooks and Lewis are two of just five linebackers in the 16-game era to total 25 interceptions. Both were the best player on one of the greatest defenses of all time. Lining them up side-by-side and daring an offense to attempt mid-range passes just seems cruel. I’m okay with that.
Von Miller, like J.J. Watt, has not played long enough to enter the discussion among the all-time greats, but in terms of peak value, there’s probably not a better pass rusher in the NFL right now. With a wider array of moves than any other pass rusher and no obvious tendencies, Miller is a nightmare to block from snap to snap. He’s also a terrific run defender and capable of dropping into coverage if the situation dictates.
Demarcus Ware is yet another phenomenal pass rusher in my deep and terrifying rotation. For my money, the top pass rusher of the last decade and a man who is more than capable of dominating in a modern environment. By bringing such a deep group, I can rotate all of them liberally, ensuring that no one plays more than a few consecutive snaps, keeping everybody as fresh and productive in the fourth quarter as they were in the first.
James Harrison might well be the most controversial selection for my team. He’s probably the least “great” player in this collection of all-time greats. But at his Defensive Player of the Year best, he was a pass rusher who could easily rival anyone else on my team, a versatile and disruptive force of nature. Most importantly, he embodies all of my defensive keywords- he was mean, he was nasty, he was ferocious. Buddy Ryan will absolutely love him. The aliens will absolutely hate him.
Cornerbacks: *Deion Sanders, *Darrelle Revis and *Rod Woodson
- Mel Blount
- Night Train Lane
Deion Sanders and Darrelle Revis are probably the two best pure coverage corners the league has ever known, and the two men who I am most certain could blanket opposing receivers under the ultra-strict contact rules of the 2004 season. Both are pure shutdown corners capable of buying my deep stable of pass rushers the extra second or two they need to get to the opposing quarterback. Both will also have plenty of chances to show off their ball skills as my pass rushers force errant and hurried throws.
Rod Woodson doesn’t have the man-coverage skills of Revis and Sanders, but he’s even better in zone coverage. A gifted ball-hawk with unbelievable range, Woodson has by a good margin the most interceptions of any modern defensive player, and also holds the all-time record for return touchdowns. He’s capable of shifting seamlessly between corner and safety, and will serve as a starter in my team’s base “nickel” defense.
Mel Blount might seem like a risky selection, given our choice of rules. Blount was so famous for his physical style of play that the rule outlawing bumping receivers beyond five yards is often called the “Mel Blount rule”.
My belief is that Blount played so physically because he could, not because he had to; Blount was named an All Pro even after the Mel Blount rule went into effect. Grabbing Blount gives us another great coverage corner, but it also gives us someone capable of really mixing things up in run support if the situation demands it.
Dick “Night Train” Lane is another potentially risky choice, given the amount of physical contact he could get away with when he played. He makes my team because he was perhaps the best ball-hawk the league has seen; he was famous for covering his man loosely enough to bait the quarterback into throwing at him, then closing in a flash for the interception.
I think those skills will translate. In addition, Night Train was a devastating hitter who, like Blount, can easily mix things up in run support if necessary.
Safeties: *Ronnie Lott and *Ed Reed
- Kenny Easley
- Jack Christiansen
I mentioned that Rod Woodson had the most interceptions among modern defensive players. In fact, there are only three players whose careers began in the 16-game era who are even within 10 interceptions of Woodson: Ed Reed, Ronnie Lott and Darren Sharper.
Reed and Lott are the best coverage safeties the league has ever known, (Lott, in fact, was an All Pro cornerback before he made the transition), and will make the alien offense pay for every tipped or errant pass.
Kenny Easley is the Gale Sayers of defense, a dominating defensive force whose career was cut short due to injury. When healthy, Easley averaged better than an interception every other game from 1982-1984, winning defensive player of the year over an in-his-prime Lawrence Taylor and Mike Singletary. He was deadly with the ball in his hands, too, averaging 11.6 yards per punt return for his career.
Jack Christiansen was an old-school ballhawk for the 1950s Detroit Lions. From 1953-1957, Christiansen intercepted 41 passes in 56 games. Christiansen twice led the league in interceptions, but he makes my team mostly for what he did after the ball was in his hands.
Christiansen’s 11 return touchdowns are the second-highest total in history, a total augmented by the fact that he was the most dangerous punt returner of all time, with 8 touchdowns on just 85 returns. Unless he shows a surprising ability to adapt to modern coverage concepts, Christiansen will largely be limited to special teams for my squad, though I wouldn’t rule out the chances of him catching on on defense, too; after he retired as a player, Christiansen knew enough about football to spend five years as a head coach.
Special Teams Coach: Dick Vermeil
I was tempted to use Bill Belichick as my special teams coach; just because he hasn’t coached special teams doesn’t mean he couldn’t. At the end of the day, though, Belichick is far more valuable to me as an offensive assistant, sitting around with Bill Walsh and scheming up nightmares.
Instead, I’ll opt for a “true” special teams coach in Dick Vermeil, who, (along with Marv Levy), began his coaching career in the NFL as the league’s first full-time special teams coach. Vermeil is a master motivator and a proven winner, experiencing success at every stop. He also oozes empathy out of every pore, and shows a rare awareness of the size of the moment even as it is happening. The team is better off for having him.
And if he wants to hang out with Walsh and Belichick in his free time and talk some shop on offense, all the better. His late-‘90s Rams and early-’00s Chiefs were known to score a few points, too.
Long Snapper: Kendall Gammon
I’m going to be honest, there probably wasn’t a player on this team I know less about than Gammon. I doubt very many people would be able to offer an informed opinion about the best long snappers in history. At the same time, I simply had to fill the position— it’s such a specialized task, and we’ve seen quality teams come to ruin because they did not have anyone capable of performing it.
Gammon was the first long-snapper to make the pro bowl, but that’s an arbitrary benchmark and not the reason he made the team. Gammon is best known for his ability to deliver the ball not just to a specific place, but with the laces facing a specific direction.
Among the very, very few people qualified to comment on the quality of long snappers is kicker Morten Andersen, who kicked for 25 years on five teams. Andersen called Gammon the greatest long-snapper in NFL history, saying “I haven’t seen anybody at his craft who even comes close. He’s unbelievable at what he does.” Dick Vermeil agreed, once saying “Kendall Gammon has done it as well as it’s ever been done, probably.” In this case, I will defer to the judgment of my special teams coach.
Punter: Mike Scifres
Out of every position on the entire 53-man roster, punter was by far the most difficult to fill. You wouldn’t think so, but it was. I feel like at a position where production is so easily quantifiable and probably more independent from teammates than anywhere else, we should really have a better idea of who the greatest guys in history were.
If I were just trying to pick the guy most likely to be selected by the consensus, I’d grab one of the Raiders greats here, but I have questions about how much of Ray Guy’s support stems from the one-man hype campaign that was John Madden. And this is not the game where I want to be answering questions like that.
As for Lechler, he’s got a booming leg for sure. And that’s all he does: Booms the ball as far down the field as he can. It helps that he’s played with a terrible offense, (punters on the worst NFL offenses averaged over a yard more per kick than those on the best, simply because they have more long fields to punt on). And he’s a very, very good punter. But plenty of other punters could put up obscene gross averages if they played with one of the best long-range kickers in the league, (to prevent any of that “punting from the 35” nonsense some guys have to deal with), for a franchise that gave them a green light to bomb away in a manner that produced touchbacks at a historically high rate.
So instead, I opted for Scifres, Lechler’s far-less-heralded nemesis from the AFC West. Scifres played on great offenses with mediocre kickers, meaning he had to punt a lot more from opposition territory, which wrecked his averages. He’s among the best in modern history at avoiding touchbacks and avoiding returns, though, and his year-to-year consistency stands out as far above his peers. Also, he’s probably the only punter to ever be the best player on the field during a playoff game.
Sure, Scifres has never been named to a Pro Bowl. He’s never been a first- or second-team AP All Pro. These are direct results with the casual fetishization of yards per punt, (and specifically, gross yards per punt). Are we really going to trust pro bowl voters as the true arbiters of punter quality?
And while I was tempted to take a Sammy Baugh or a Randall Cunningham as my punter to open up the possibility of gimmicky fakes, don’t buy the hype about those two men purely as punters. Baugh played in an era of 3rd-down punts when averages were universally high. Cunningham had 20 career punts. If all goes well and I find myself up 7 with 2 minutes to play, facing 4th-and-12 from my own 10 yard line, I don’t want to be trusting the fate of humanity to anyone but the best at his craft.
I’m still not sure who that is. But I think Scifres is a pretty good bet. (And yes, I really did just spend seven paragraphs writing up my pick at punter. When humanity is at stake, details matter.)
Kicker: Nick Lowery
Adjusting for era, the two best kickers of all-time were Jan Stenerud and Nick Lowery, (who, interestingly enough, both played for the Chiefs in 1979-1980, in what was basically the kicker equivalent of Joe Montana to Steve Young).
With all due respect to Adam Vinatieri, his reputation for clutch kicks is also a tribute to the phenomenal teams that kept setting him up in a situation for late-game heroics. He might be the name everyone knows, but Stenerud and Lowery were simply better kickers. I opt for Lowery over Stenerud not necessarily because I’m convinced he was the better of the two, but because he played more recently, and therefore I am slightly more confident that he’d be just as excellent in the modern kicking environment.
Special Teamer: Jim Thorpe
On my entire 53-man roster, there are only four players who played even a single snap in the 1950s or earlier. I have Night Train Lane (1952-1965) providing depth at cornerback. Jack Christiansen (1951-1958) handles my punt returns and provides me with another ballhawk at safety. And obviously Jim Brown (1957-1965) comes along to bring terror and woe to any who dare to tackle him.
The paucity of older players isn’t because I’m unaware of NFL history. The problem, for the sake of this exercise, is one of certainty and translation. You probably won’t find a player as universally revered in first-hand accounts as Nagurski, but the NFL didn’t even keep statistics for the first two years of his career. Am I really to trust the fate of the world to a player with under 3,000 career yards (officially) and 25 touchdowns based on unverifiable hagiography?
Or what about Paul Krause and Emlen Tunnell? The two Hall of Famers were ballhawks nonpareil, both retiring as the career leader in interceptions and still sitting there at 1 and 2 after 40+ years. They’d seem like a natural fit with my defensive philosophy, but how certain am I that I could teach them modern coverage concepts in 90 days? And even if I could, how can I know that their skills would still be as good of a match in this wildly different era?
Hall of Famer Danny Fortmann was a first-team All Pro guard in six of his eight season, and a second-team All Pro guard in the other two. He played at 6’0” and 210 pounds. He’d get pushed all over the field in today’s game. Sure, given 90 days I could bulk him up a little, but how much? And even if I could get him up to 300 pounds, how would the additional weight impact his play?
Don Hutson has earned his place in the discussion of the greatest receivers in history. He retired in 1945 as the all-time leader in receiving touchdowns, and he held that record until it was broken by Steve Largent… in 1989.
Hutson’s 1942 season is legendary- 74 receptions, 1211 yards, and 17 touchdowns in just 11 games. It’s considered by many to be the greatest season of all time, (though, personally, I’d take Elroy Hirsch’s 1951 campaign). The problem? Half of the league was overseas fighting in World War II, and the half that was left wasn’t integrated.
The mid-1940s NFL was a mess. 1943 we saw the Steelers and Eagles merge for a season and play as the “Phil-Pitt Steagles”. 1944 gave us the delightfully named “Card-Pitt”. Would Hutson have been as dominant against the best of his era? I wouldn’t want to stake the fate of humanity on it.
I mention all of this because I wanted to highlight just how special Jim Thorpe is as the one truly “pre-modern” player on my roster. Thorpe played in the NFL before it was even called the NFL, serving as president of the league for the first two seasons of its existence, but his professional career predates the league entirely. He was a national celebrity who drew huge crowds and huge, (relative to the time), paychecks as early as 1913.
Thorpe played running back and defensive back and even did a bit of punting, (reportedly once kicking a 95-yarder in a 1919 championship game). As with all of the other old-timers, I’m not really sure how well his skills would translate to the modern game. One thing I am sure would translate, though? His athleticism.
You see, Thorpe was a man of many talents. In addition to football, Thorpe played baseball and basketball. And Lacrosse. He also won the 1912 intercollegiate ballroom dancing championship, suggesting there was some grace behind that power. But Thorpe’s biggest success came in track and field.
After serving as a one-man track team in college, Thorpe was tapped to represent the United States in the pentathlon and newly-introduced decathlon in the 1912 Olympics. Thorpe dominated the competition, winning four of the five pentathlon events outright, (the exception being a 3rd-place finish in the javelin throw, which Thorpe had never competed in before that year), and setting an Olympic record in the decathlon that would stand for decades.
Most impressively, Thorpe did it all in shoes that he found in the trash after his own were stolen. He wore two different shoes, and had to wear extra socks because one of the shoes was too big.
The list of Thorpe’s accomplishments could take up an entire book, (and, indeed, they have). Suffice it to say that he’s almost certainly the greatest athlete to ever play professional football. In fact, he might be the single greatest athlete in American sports history. I’m not sure how he would take to the modern game, but if past results are any indication, that’s one bet I’d be very happy to make.
But even if he struggles making the transition, he’ll be an absolute demon on special teams. Let the aliens deal with the biggest, strongest, fastest man to ever lace up a pair of cleats. Let them see a glimpse of the limits of human potential. Then let’s see if they still have a taste for conquest.
In compiling a 53-man roster to defend our species, there were naturally some cuts that were more difficult than others. Among the cruelest cuts I was forced to make were Mike Ditka, Merlin Olsen, Alan Page, Jack Lambert, Joe Greene, and Dwight Stephensen. Each has a claim as the greatest player to ever play his position, but in all cases I had concerns about how they would translate to the modern game.
In addition, Steve Young, Earl Campbell, Steve Smith, Barry Sanders, Rick Upchurch, and Devin Hester are personal favorites of mine who stand among the greatest the game has ever seen. I was confident that all would thrive on my team, but ultimately felt that their best skills overlapped with players already on the roster, so I was forced to cut them to make room.