The shark is nature's second-most perfectly evolved predator. Its perfectly hydrodynamic shape, incredible swimming power, astonishing hunting senses and yes—rows and rows of razor-sharp teeth—have put it at the apex of the ocean's food chain since 200 million years before the first dinosaur walked the earth.
Nature's most perfectly evolved predator is Lawrence Taylor.
The most electrifying, terrifying pass-rusher who ever lived, Taylor single-handedly changed the way the game is played. The power his body generated to propel his 6'3", 245-pound frame to terrifying speeds was transferred into the blindsides of opposing quarterbacks. Ribs, legs and offensive possessions were shattered by the force with which Taylor hit.
Taylor inspired a generation of big, fast blitzing linebackers—and in turn, a dramatic change in the way offenses protect quarterbacks. To keep this new breed of predators at bay, teams scouted and groomed bigger, more athletic left tackles. Thanks to Taylor and his ilk, an afterthought "big ugly" role became one of the highest-paid, highest-profile positions in football.
Taylor's entrance into the NFL was perfectly timed. The NFL's adoption of passer-friendly rules in 1976, 1977 and 1978 had ushered in a new era of pass-first offenses. Forward-thinking coaches like Bill Walsh and Don Coryell had begun building their offenses around a quarterback's newfound ability to completely control the game.
It was a football biome for which Taylor was well-adapted. His ability to devour quarterbacks immediately broke these new passer-centric NFL offenses. As a rookie in 1981, his 9.5 (unofficial) sacks earned him the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, Defensive Player of the Year honors and a spot on the Pro Bowl and All-Pro rosters. He would make those rosters each of his first 10 seasons in the NFL.
Taylor was the linchpin of a Giants defense that ultimately won two Super Bowls. In 1986, he was named NFL MVP—only the second defensive MVP since the award's inception in 1957. His dominance was unrivaled, then or since.
How could NFL offenses adapt to such a force of nature?
Enter the new breed of left tackle, as part of a big change in size all along the O-line.
Traditionally, blitzing linebackers had been handled by running backs kept in to block. But Taylor's terrifying combination of size and speed made that impossible. Further, the modern offenses Taylor preyed upon were the first to rely on tailbacks as pass-catchers—keeping them in to block hamstrung the offense.
At the end of Taylor's rookie season, in the NFC divisional playoffs, Walsh's 49ers were facing Taylor's Giants, and Walsh came up with a novel idea: assign guard John Ayers to block Taylor man-to-man. Though Taylor got to quarterback Joe Montana once, the 49ers got the better of Taylor and the Giants. Assigning an offensive lineman to block a pass-rushing linebacker caught on.
The prospect of stopping a blitzing linebacker was daunting for the tradition offensive line. The foundation of the game had always been, to use a tired phrase, "Run and stop the run." From football's beginnings In the late 1800s and through the first half of the 20th century, offensive linemen were built to lead the charge through enemy defenses—more like a group of athletic tight ends. As the forward pass was introduced, then became a vital part of the game, linemen quickly got bigger.
In the 1970s, the average offensive lineman was barely any bigger than Taylor: 6'3" tall and weighing 255 pounds. A player that size coming out of his stance to try and block Taylor, already at full sprint, was defeated before the snap. The only way stationary offensive tackles could absorb high-velocity edge rushers was to have a huge advantage in size and strength.
So in the 1980s, the average offensive lineman swelled to 6'4", 272 pounds. By the 1990s, when linebackers like Kevin Greene and Derrick Thomas followed in Taylor's footsteps, offensive linemen averaged 6'4" and a full 300 pounds.
The evolution of the NFL left tackle reached its zenith with Jonathan Ogden. Listed at an astonishing 6'9", 345 pounds, Odgen would have had a size advantage of half-a-foot and 50 pounds on Taylor. Moreover, Odgen wasn't just a giant, he was an excellent left tackle. He had athletic command of his massive frame, and he used it to anchor a devastating Baltimore Ravens offensive line that averaged 316 pounds.
That Ravens line, along with its brutal, blitzing defense, may have been the last of the old era. They ran and stopped the run as well as any team in history, but that's no longer the blueprint for success.
New offensive schemes are making size less of a premium on the offensive line. Coaches are stretching the field vertically and horizontally with 4-receiver and 5-receiver sets, so quarterbacks have more options and need less time. As the passing game becomes more effective across the board, the inside run game will continue to fade in importance. NFL coaches are already dialing up passes 40, 50, 60-plus times a game with regularity. Offenses are protecting the quarterback with agile, technical linemen who can't double as interior road graders—but don't need to.
The decade-over-decade girth growth has stopped; offensive lineman are getting taller and leaner. In 2011, the NFL average was 6'5" and 310 pounds. Garrett Downing of the official Baltimore Ravens blog explained how even Ravens scouts and coaches are now selecting leaner, more agile blockers like those of yesteryear. The consensus top offensive tackle in the 2011 draft is USC's Matt Kalil—a relative beanpole at 6'6," 295 pounds.
Inevitably, as the nature of offense in the NFL changes, so too will the nature of defense. But Taylor's legacy is secure: Speed, power and relentlessness in pursuit of the quarterback will always be the quickest way to break an offense. A 6'3", 245-pound pass-rusher with Taylor's college production would look just as good to a modern 3-4 team as he did to the Giants in 1981.
If the rookie version of Taylor could be brought forward 30 years in time, he'd be no less dangerous a player or more enticing a prospect...nature's most perfectly evolved NFL predator.