Situation substitution is doing a number on my All-Pro selections, and if the purists are hollering cop-out, well, I didn't make the game the way it is. I'm just trying to line up the best people possible. I've picked two 3-4 inside linebackers, a pure 4-3 middle linebacker, a 4-3 defensive tackle and, for the first time, a nickelback.
Oh yes, I've also picked three running backs instead of two because I wouldn't be able to face my wife and children if I left Atlanta's Gerald Riggs off it. I've picked two noseguards instead of one because I simply couldn't choose between the Jets' Joe Klecko and the Bengals' Tim Krumrie. They're that close—and that good. I wish I could have picked three, and included the Raiders' Bill Pickel.
The most intriguing position is quarterback. Something has been spooking them this year. Of the top-20-rated quarterbacks at this stage of the 1984 season, 14 are ranked lower now, some dramatically so—by almost 30 points. Why? Probably the more liberal pass defense rules this year, possibly more sophisticated defenses, or more injuries along the offensive line. Anyway, they're having a rougher time, and I had trouble finding one clear stick-out. The Chargers' Dan Fouts comes closest. He's one of the few whose rating is up. I narrowed the race down to five finalists—Fouts, the Dolphins' Dan Marino, the Jets' Ken O'Brien, the Bears' Jim McMahon and the Bengals' Boomer Esiason. Then I looked for impact, and it became a two-man race, Fouts vs. Marino. Marino's season was a two-parter, B.D. and A.D., Before Duper and After Duper. When the gifted little wideout came back from his injury, so did Danny's big numbers. Fouts was more consistent. The payoff came in Week 14 against the Steelers. Pittsburgh had limited opposing passers to an incredibly low 9.95 yards per completion, with the opposing wideouts averaging only 12 yards per catch, but Fouts killed them with the long ball, hitting his wideouts, Charlie Joiner and Wes Chandler, 11 times for an average of 24 yards a pop. That swung it.
Riggs's season (1,561 yards), for a 3-12 team, defies logic. There's no way I can leave him out. Or the Bears' Walter Payton, tireless, ageless, cranking out those nine 100-yard games like a machine until the Jets stopped him at 53 on Saturday. Or Marcus Allen, who has been carrying the Raiders' offense for most of the season. How can you omit Roger Craig, the 49ers ask. He's carrying our offense, too. O.K., so who gets bumped? Or how about the most exotic specimen of all, the Chargers' 5'6" Lionel (Little Train) James? A Buddy Young reincarnation. Yeah, I'd like to pick all of them, but there's only room for two—make that three—Riggs, Payton and Allen.
As usual, the wide receivers were bunched: Dallas's Tony Hill, Washington's Art Monk and Gary Clark, Pittsburgh's John Stallworth and Louis Lipps, Seattle's Steve Largent, Philly's Mike Quick and Green Bay's James Lofton. I went down the season, game by game, and looked for consistency—who performed the best week after week, who was the biggest factor in his team's offense? Largent and Quick emerged. They had one common virtue—the attack would be lost without them. Largent is enjoying his fourth 70-catch-plus year out of the last five. Quick had a streak of six straight TD-catch games; two of the receptions won games.
The Raiders' Todd Christensen has the tight end spot to himself. Cleveland's Ozzie Newsome was down in the numbers as the attack went to the ground. San Diego's Kellen Winslow was hurt. A sleeper, though, is Houston's Jamie Williams, who blocks as well as any of them and who can catch the short or deep ball. The Jets' Mickey Shuler was the closest thing to a possession receiver the club had.
Jimbo Covert is a repeater at tackle. The Bears' running game is most effective when it's lefthanded, and he's the rock on that side. I like the Colts' Chris Hinton because he's one of the few tackles in this era of bench-pressers and stranglers who actually fires out and delivers a pop. Joe Jacoby of the Washington Redskins, unfortunately, was down with a sprained knee for part of the season.
Washington's Russ Grimm is a surviving Hog who maintained a consistently high level of play at guard while the world was crumbling around him. He was forced through necessity to move to tackle for two games, but we'll forget about those. Cincinnati's 300-pound Brian Blados doesn't look pretty, but he's got nifty feet for a big guy, and when the Bengals are clicking offensively he's usually burying somebody. The Patriots' John Hannah had a depressing, injury-laden year. He played at about half speed. The Giants' Chris Godfrey is a comer.
A few weeks ago I asked one of the Jets' offensive linemen how he liked the new line coach this year. "You mean Joe Fields?" he said. I don't think he was kidding. Fields runs the show from his center spot, and he's having a terrific year, his best of the 11 that he has been around. Dwight Stephenson of Miami will be the consensus All-Pro again. Fields might not even make the Pro Bowl squad. Don't get me wrong. Stephenson's one of the best ever, but I just don't think he had the season Fields did.
On defense, my ends are Howie Long of the Raiders, a repeater, and the Broncos' Rulon Jones. Long is the consummate flankman: plays the run, rushes the passer. He won't lead the league in sacks because he moves inside on passing downs. Jones, after many years of getting close, finally came into his own this year. He was always a good pass rusher. Now he's a complete player. Mark Gastineau of the Jets was slowed by injuries but he's still the league's premier sacker, although the Giants' Leonard Marshall, a rough, physically overpowering type of rusher, has the big numbers with 14.5 sacks.