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Giants’ one-man wrecking crew Lawrence Taylor changed the NFL on both sides of the ball

Today’s left tackles can thank Taylor for making them the highest-paid position along the offensive line.

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There are 32 members of the New York Giants in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, tied for third-most among all NFL franchises.

It’s a testament to Lawrence Taylor’s impact on football that he stands out among all 32 of them. Many of those legends can be said to have “revolutionized” the game of football, or some similar honorific. What’s often difficult, though, is pointing to specific instances where one player dictated the future trajectory of the game in the way Taylor did.

Taylor’s greatness is already well documented. He’s the best edge rusher of all time according to ESPN and the fourth-greatest football player ever according to The Athletic. So let’s take a different approach. Instead of recounting Taylor’s best plays and seasons, let’s look at some of the ways his on-field ability impacted the players and coaches around the league during his prime.

Changing the game on defense

Blitzing was not a new concept during Taylor’s rookie season in 1981. However, the idea was usually to bring so many pass rushers that the offensive line could not block them all.

Taylor was his own blitz package. Rather than overwhelm blockers with brute strength, as was typical at the time, Taylor coupled his natural physicality with lethal pass-rush moves that made him a more skilled blitzer. This allowed defensive coordinator Bill Parcells to have Taylor rush the passer as a linebacker on almost every play, a novel concept at the time.

In a 1991 profile of Taylor, writer Paul Zimmerman said Taylor’s arrival was like that of an “emissary from another planet.” He took control of entire games and won Defensive Player of the Year as a rookie while essentially inventing the modern outside linebacker position.

Taylor’s arrival to the NFL coincided with the game’s progression towards pass-oriented offenses. In his second season, the league’s total passing attempts outweighed total rushing attempts for the first time ever. This meant attacking the quarterback was more important than ever, allowing Taylor to become the most disruptive player on the field.

As Taylor continued to dominate, pass rushers gradually became the centerpieces of their defenses. Middle linebackers like Jack Lambert and Dick Butkus had once been the league’s most well known defensive stars. They were soon replaced by Taylor and guys like Kevin Greene and Derrick Thomas.

Taylor didn’t just attack the quarterback. He had the athleticism to weave through defenders and chase after running backs, even if he was lined up on the opposite side of the field. Linebackers had never been known for their agility or speed, but Taylor transformed the prototype for the position. Though it’s not quite accurate to call him a “positionless” player as some of today’s stars are referred to, there is a through line from Taylor to the more versatile All-Pro linebackers of the modern game.

Taylor was a first-team All-Pro in each of his first six seasons. He finished his career with 142 sacks (including the unofficial ones from before sacks were a stat), 1,088 tackles, 33 forced fumbles and nine interceptions.

His 1986 year remains one of the greatest single-season performances in NFL history. Under defensive coordinator Bill Belichick, Taylor led the league with 20.5 sacks and joined Alan Page as the only two defensive players to win the NFL MVP award. He led the Giants to their first Super Bowl title by helping hold the 49ers to three points in the Divisional Round and shutting out Washington in the NFC Championship Game.

Game changer on offense

Taylor’s sheer dominance forced opposing offenses to plan their entire blocking scheme around desperate attempts to keep Taylor away from their quarterback

Before Taylor, blitzing linebackers were mostly an afterthought. Teams could simply keep a tailback in to block to deal with the extra pressure. The problem with that was simple: Leave a running back to block Taylor, and they would probably end up flat on their behind.

It wasn’t until the end of Taylor’s rookie season that opposing offenses caught on.

In the 1982 NFC Divisional Round, San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh changed his blocking scheme to something entirely Taylor-centric. Guard John Ayers, the best player on the 49ers’ offensive line, blocked Taylor man-to-man on passing plays. On rushing plays, Walsh assigned a tight end to simply wait around for Taylor and try to fend him off.

On the very first play of the game, Taylor appeared to have a clear path towards quarterback Joe Montana — until Ayers located and contained him. Taylor finished the game with two tackles and one sack in the 49ers’ 38-24 win. Walsh declared at the time that “Taylor was nullified.”

The need to nullify Taylor and the outside linebackers that followed him helped change the way scouts evaluated offensive line prospects. According to Business Insider, the average offensive lineman in the 1970’s was 6’3 and weighed 255 pounds. But once linebackers as skilled as Taylor began blitzing with a running start away from the line of scrimmage, teams needed massive, athletic tackles who could stand their ground. By the 1990s, the average lineman was 6’4 and 300 pounds.

It didn’t stop there. Washington head coach Joe Gibbs also went to great lengths to prepare for playing Taylor twice a year in the NFC East. Gibbs is credited with creating the H-back position: “Something that doesn’t exist,” as he told the Washington Post in 1986.

Gibbs replaced one of the running backs in the traditional two running back/one tight end formation with an H-back, a cross between a fullback and tight end. The intent was to find a versatile player who could be the lead blocker on run plays, help in pass protection and catch passes — and keep Taylor keep out of the backfield.

“We had to try in some way have a special game plan just for Lawrence Taylor,” Gibbs said. “Now you didn’t do that very often in this league but I think he’s one person that we learned the lesson the hard way. We lost ball games.”

Though more modern two-tight end sets often utilize both tight ends as receivers, the H-back hasn’t completely died.

Taylor was also one of the first great pass rushers to consistently line up on the quarterback’s blind side. Thus, teams began placing their more talented offensive linemen at left tackle, a spot that wasn’t always seen as more important than the guard position. Today, left tackles have the highest average salary in the NFL, according to Spotrac.

They have Lawrence Taylor to thank for that.