New York Giants defensive end Lawrence Taylor (56) sets for play in 1990.  Al Messerschmidt via AP)
New York Giants defensive end Lawrence Taylor (56) sets for play in 1990. Al Messerschmidt via AP) — Al Messerschmidt Archive

Lawrence Taylor is one of six Pro Football Hall of Famers who'll be in attendance as we unveil the entire Team For the Ages at "Football Legends LIVE!" Sept. 8 in Crystal Lake, Ill. Tickets are on sale now:

This feature originally ran in Pro Football Weekly, Vol. I, No. 5, Sept. 29,1986

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Is Lawrence Taylor back?

“That depends on your point of reference,” suggested Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick.

The Giants, for instance, unlike most of the viewing football public, never felt that L.T. went anywhere from which he had to return. If Taylor was not the dominating force of his earlier years, then credit opposing coaches for devising offensive game plans which focused on the neutralization of Lawrence Taylor.

If you judge his 1985 season by the whole, then the Giants have a valid point in their contention that Taylor remained, overall, a brilliant performer, despite playing through an alcohol and/or chemical dependency that landed him in a drug rehabilitation facility for six weeks during the offseason.

After all, Taylor led the No. 2 defense in football in tackles with 104, and only seven players in the NFL had more than Taylor's 13 sacks. Does that sound like a man who lost it?

“As far as I'm concerned," perennial All-Pro LB and erstwhile sage Harry Carson said, "you guys expect a heckuva lot from him. Lawrence is not a Superman. He's a super player, but not a Superman. People are keying on him, putting guards and tackles on him. He can't do everything by himself."

Team elder George Martin expressed a similar sentiment, claiming, "I can't understand what all the hoopla is about, as far as his losing his zeal for the game last year. When you are the caliber of player that L.T. is, then teams gear their offenses to stop him. He gets out-and-out tackled, double- and triple-teamed.

"He caught the league by storm, but Lawrence is still a dominating force in the National Football League. The man went to the Pro Bowl last year. . . The man led the team in tackles. . . The man led the linebackers in quarterback sacks. He still amazes me. And as far as I'm concerned, it's still Lawrence Taylor, superstar."

Yet there is a flip side.

For whatever reason, Taylor disappeared in several games last year. In as many as four to six games, Taylor did not seem to have much of a positive effect on the outcome. For a player who twice was named Defensive Player of the Year and four times the best linebacker in the NFL, that is cause for alarm.

Coupled with the troubles that surfaced publicly in the offseason, it was impossible not to sense a slide in Taylor's career.

At the same time, the emergence of Patriot LB Andre Tippett seemed to suggest a further decline in Taylor's game, because Tippett had reached the point where Taylor had been. After praising Tippett’s greatness, the next question was: "So what's wrong with Lawrence Taylor?”

By the beginning of last year," Tippett said recently, “I felt I had moved into the same category with Taylor at the top. Now, I feel I'm ahead of them all. I don’t want to sound big-headed. I'm just being honest. I’ve done what's had to be done, making all the plays a linebacker has to make, stopping the run, making sacks and big plays."

Those could have been Taylor's words in any other season. But, in 1985, Taylor yielded his ground and, this, the inevitable questions.

"Magnificently" is the only way to describe his two-sack, six-tackle rampage against Philadelphia. He looked no less intimidating in two games against Washington with a combined 22 tackles and four sacks. Sad as his chilling and career-ending tackle on Joe Theismann was during a nationally televised game in November, it showed Taylor at his ferocious best.

“If your reference point is Chicago (in the playoffs), how do you think he played?" Belichick asked.

Certainly Taylor's 11-tackle performance on sub-freezing Soldier Field would not tarnish your estimation of his '85 season. The Giant defense did everything it could to win that game, and Taylor, as expected, was the focal point of the defense.

“If your reference point is the game against (at) Dallas, how do you think he played?"

In that game, arguably the most important regular-season game for the Giants in 23 years, with a chance to virtually assure themselves of the Eastern Division title, Taylor was nearly invisible. Two tackles, no sacks, no forced or recovered fumbles, no passes defensed.

If that were all there was to the Taylor downside — one off-game — then there would be no need for concern. Dallas, you know, had a little to do with Taylor's ineffectiveness.

But the previous week against Houston — only two tackles, half a sack. Nearly invisible.

In the second game of the season, an upset loss to the inferior Green Bay Packers, Taylor had only three tackles and half a sack. Nearly invisible. Was it a coincidence that Taylor was found asleep in the elevator at the team's hotel earlier that morning?

When assessing Lawrence Taylor's season, it is the inconsistency that stands out. In fact, it blares out. It never happened before to L.T.

"He's got great ability, no question of that," Belichick said. "Almost unparalleled ability. But the mark of all great players is consistency."

By that barometer, Taylor's '85 season was his least great year.

If intensity is any reflection on whether Taylor produces at pre-'85 standards this year, then recent signs are pointing upward. Against the Jets, the third week of the preseason, Taylor was heard screeching on the sideline, "I feel it coming back. I feel it coming back."

According to Belichick, "That was one of the best games I've ever seen him play.” On one particular play, Taylor took on 215-pound RB Dennis Bligen, and the result was almost criminal.

"He completely crushed the guy," Belichick said. "He knocked Bligen about six yards back in the air past three other guys. A play like that, well, nobody else can make that play."

In the absence of Taylor-esque plays such as the one against the Jets, there is a danger in judging Taylor simply by the number of tackles and sacks. For instance, in the first two games of this regular season, in an opening game loss to Dallas and a victory over San Diego, no one will tell you Taylor has played anything but outstanding football.

But in those two games combined, Taylor had only 10 tackles and, of his two sacks, the half sack against the Chargers was generous in that Leonard Marshall appeared to do the damage on the play. In that game against the Chargers, Taylor made only two primary and two assisted tackles. Should that be judged as a poor game?

Quite the contrary. For one, the Giant defense allowed the Chargers only 56 offensive plays. Of that total, only 13 were rushes. Under those circumstances, there is obviously going to be fewer tackles in and around the line of scrimmage where Taylor roams predominantly.

Additionally, the Giants seldom blitzed against San Diego, though in the Giant scheme it is not considered a blitz when Taylor rushes, because that is generally his role. The defensive scheme was to maximize coverage and rush three linemen plus Taylor most of the time. That is not going to produce much in the way of sacks, but it is a credit to Taylor, and the manpower it takes to stop him, that the Giants were able to put pressure on Fouts several times. That the Giants made five interceptions that day is testimony to the pass-rush pressure. If Fouts can sit back in the pocket carefree, it won't matter how many defensive backs the Giants use. Fouts will get it there.

In the previous week against Dallas, Taylor had six tackles to lead the team, along with one and a half sacks, clearly impressive stats. Yet the Giants lost that game in the closing minute when the defense failed to stop Dallas' last drive. Could Taylor have done something super-heroic to prevent that Dallas rally?

In truth, probably not. It seems that Taylor in many ways is subject to the same quality-control standard that is used for a quarterback. If a quarterback receives too much credit in a win and too much blame in a loss, then so does Taylor.

Then how do we judge Lawrence Taylor? How do we know if L.T. is, in fact, back?

Belichick provided the only answer to that question at the top. In judging Lawrence Taylor's greatness, it all depends on your point of reference.

Lawrence Taylor is one of five Pro Football Hall of Famers who'll be in attendance as we unveil the entire Team For the Ages at "Football Legends LIVE!" Sept. 8 in Crystal Lake, Ill. Tickets are on sale now: