During the past two years, the NFL's best pass rushers have been Kevin Greene, Chris Doleman, Michael Sinclair, John Randle, Bruce Smith and Michael McCrary. No, this is not a misprint. It's Ravens right defensive end Michael McCrary.
The same guy who always looks like he was inflated by an air hose and weighs 280 pounds before the season from all the creatine digested and hours in the weight room. And the same McCrary who shrivels to 260 pounds and looks like a popped balloon by the middle of the season. The McCrary from Wake Forest. A former Seattle free agent. Great looks, the rugged chin and hairdo by Little Richard.
In the last 27 games, only Greene, Carolina's outside linebacker, has as many sacks as McCrary, with both tied at 27. Doleman, who plays defensive end for San Francisco, is second with 25. While most of the country has been slow to learn McCrary's name, those who play against him know his game.
"This guy is one of the most tenacious, fiercest pass rushers in the league. I don't know why he doesn't get more recognition, to be honest," said Jacksonville's Tony Boselli, one of the best offensive tackles in the league.
Here's what the Ravens' Jonathan Ogden, another top offensive tackle said: "He is relentless. He doesn't stop in games, he doesn't in practice, he doesn't stop in drills."
It's a style that is paying off for the 6-foot-4, whatever-he-weighs McCrary, and one that is familiar to some of the greatest pass rushers in the game from Deacon Jones and Bobby Bell to Lawrence Taylor and Derrick Thomas.
All great pass rushers have quickness, technique and above all else, a strong desire to get the quarterback.
"I don't drink, but I guess a sack must be like getting high, especially when you get him by yourself," said Bell, a defensive end for the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1960s and early 1970s. "It's attitude, the culmination of a lot of work. Joe Greene and L. C. Greenwood were some good ones in my day, and I like that Hardy Nickerson and Bryan Cox fellow."
And what about Michael McCrary? Bell has never heard of him, even though McCrary was the first alternate for his position at the Pro Bowl last season. McCrary? Who dat? "I'm kind of used to it, it's been that way all my life. I've always had to fight to get recognition," said McCrary, a seventh-round pick by Seattle in 1993. "I was picked in the lower rounds and I've never been with a winning team."
Origin of the sack
It's surprising that McCrary hasn't received a lot of recognition because there are a lot of things involved in a sack. Money. Prestige. Violence. A chance to dance. It's pro football's version of Michael Jordan taking off from the foul line.
Rams defensive end Deacon Jones, who played in the 1960s and '70s, coined the term "sack" in 1967.
"We needed a short term. I gave it some thought and came up with the term 'sack,' like you sack a city, you devastate it," said Jones. "And the word was so short you could even get Deacon in front of the word Jones in some headlines. But wow, I never thought it would take off like it did."
Jones and players like former Colts defensive end Bubba Smith were from the days when tall, physical and quick defensive ends were lined up on the left side to rush the quarterback or get their arms in the quarterback's view.
But defensive coaches changed their minds when the league outlawed a prime pass-rushing weapon in 1977, the head slap, and a year later rules were changed that allowed linemen to extend their arms while blocking. Also, defensive backs were not allowed to hit a receiver after 5 yards from the line of scrimmage.
Coordinators started moving top defensive linemen along the line of scrimmage for better matchups. In 1981, a linebacker named Lawrence Taylor entered the league and defensive ends were replaced by linebackers.
Pass rushers were basically divided into four classifications. There are speed rushers, mostly linebackers, like Seattle's Chad Brown and Thomas, from Kansas City, who can disappear from games because they are one-dimensional. Then there were the big, huge defensive ends like Ed "Too Tall" Jones. There also are the combination of strength and speed in players like Reggie White, Bruce Smith and Taylor and then there are "tweeners," players like Seattle defensive end Sinclair, Doleman or former Cowboy and 49er Charles Haley. And don't forget McCrary.
"I want to be the quickest guy," said Bell. "On the snap of the ball, I want to beat him at the crossroads."
"As far as speed guys go, they are usually lanky guys who have flexibility in their hips, quickness off the ball and the hips enable them to turn the corner," said Marvin Lewis, Ravens defensive coordinator. "Then you have another group of guys, the best group, that have that combination of hips and power which allows them to convert from speed to power or power to speed.
"They give offensive linemen a fit because he is not sure what he is going to get. It's like a pitcher who always throws the fastball. It's easy to adjust. But when he has the big-time curve, it makes a difference. Mike McCrary falls into that deal of having that. He has great hips for a guy his size, but has the strength of a man much bigger."
It's important for the strength and quickness to work together.
"If I can get in the first lick, then I can go inside, outside, throw him or duck under," Bell said. "But if he gets his hands on you, then it's over."
When the rules changed in 1978, defensive linemen went to hand-to-hand combat with moves the "club" or "rip," meant to get blockers' hands off them. McCrary has participated in the martial arts every year since high school. The Browns/Ravens have brought in karate experts during the offseason.
"It's good for instinctive reaction," said McCrary. "Eye-hand coordination is something you never want to lose."
It's also a mental game. When McCrary first came into the league, he spent months studying film of Haley, Taylor, and Rams defensive end Leslie O'Neal. Now he spends hours studying his opponents, dissecting a players' foot speed, balance and aggressive- ness. But he also gives them something to think about, too.
McCrary gets in a new stance every week by changing his angle or shifting his weight. He never shows the same move in the first few plays. It's a game inside the game.
"You have to keep them guessing," said McCrary. "There are only a few well-rounded tackles and two of them are Boselli and Ogden. The rest are on the same level. If a player is strong in one hTC area, then he is usually weak in another. I've had offensive linemen say they have studied me, got me down, they know what I'm going to do. That's impossible because I don't always know what I'm going to do."
McCrary has an unorthodox style. Both Bell and Jones said they would never show the same move three times in a row. McCrary said he would.
"The offensive lineman is thinking the same thing, that there is no way you're going to try the same move three straight times, but that's why I do it. Never think like everybody else."
Also hit them with speed. It's one common denominator among all great ones. Individual battles are won within the first two or three steps. McCrary takes it a step further. He may be the Ravens' quickest lineman, but he also is a cleanup player who racks up sacks by running quarterbacks down as they roll to the other side.
McCrary has registered several sacks over the past two seasons by crawling yards to get to the quarterback.
McCrary prefers to play against mean, nasty boys like Boselli who bring out the best in him. He hates to fail, approving of only two games he has played in since he was 7 years old. When asked what in his life was bigger than a sack, McCrary said only his parents.
"I play to have fun, and there is no more fun than having a big, old nasty offensive lineman who is going to stay in your face and stay after you," said McCrary. "But I've always taken pride in being physical. It comes from the heart, and other players are going to have to respect that. I'm just going to go and kick somebody's butt.
"To get a sack is a sense of accomplishment. When I get one, I enjoy it for about two seconds. Then I get greedy and want another one."
Pub Date: 10/16/98