For a large portion of NFL history, middle linebackers have been referred to as quarterbacks of the defense, and they are expected to possess the football intelligence to match the title. Mike backers must have the ability to do a little bit of everything: make tackles sideline to sideline, stop runs up the gut, maintain coverage (usually on backs and tight ends), run and pass blitz, and get personnel into position and make necessary adjustments.1 With the wide array of skills needed to play at an elite level – and do so for a long time – few men stood out as no brainers for induction. In the end, we agreed on nine middle linebackers to make the inaugural GridFe Hall of Fame class, with three others receiving votes.2
Hall of Fame Middle Linebackers
Chuck Bednarik (1949-1962)
9 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 8 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Enforcer Award; 3 GridFe Dobre Shunka Awards
Concrete Charlie could have gone into the Hall of Fame as a linebacker or as a center, given his prowess at both positions. Ultimately, his play on defense stood out more than did his blocking. Bednarik was fast and powerful, and he possessed incredible endurance required of the NFL’s last 60 minute man in an era of specialization and free substitution. On offense, he was an especially talented run blocker3 who also held his own in pass protection. On defense, he quickly diagnosed plays and delivered brutal hits; his 1960 tackle of Frank Gifford nearly ended the back’s career and may be the most famous tackle in the history of the sport.
Bill George (1952-1966)
Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams
8 First Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 3 GridFe Enforcer Awards
Chicago legend Bill George is often recognized as the first player to star as a pure middle linebacker, as well as an inspiration for the 4-3 defense that would eventually dominate the league. While he began his career as a middle guard, a position akin to a modern nose tackle, his cunning and athleticism allowed him to back off the line of scrimmage and become a disruptive presence against opposing passing attacks. George was arguably the best in the NFL at his position for nearly a decade, and he was probably the best defender in football in 1956.
Joe Schmidt (1953-1965)
1 MVP; 10 First Team All Pros; 10 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 6 GridFe Enforcer Awards
On a Detroit Lions defensive dynasty full of defensive stars, Schmidt was the man they considered their leader. He earned a first-team all pro selection every season from 1954-63, and he was the defensive captain for nine years. On top of that, players voted him the league’s most valuable defensive player in 1960. While Bill George may have been first to star at MLB, Schmidt took the position to another level. He countered quarterback calls with his own adjustments, saw plays coming with the acumen of a chess master, and is among the finest cover linebackers in history.
Ray Nitschke (1958-1972)
Green Bay Packers
3 First Team All Pros; 4 Second Team All Pros; 1 Pro Bowl; 5 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Enforcer Awards
Ray Nitschke has a unique profile among legendary linebackers: he’s a top ten middle linebacker who only made one Pro Bowl in his career. Powerful and rugged, Nitschke was a superb run stopper who could also hold his own in coverage when called upon. He picked up a respectable 25 interceptions in his career, and he had several key plays in his five championship victories.4 Nitschke was a natural leader and was, thus, the heart and soul of the great defensive dynasty in Green Bay.
Nick Buoniconti (1962-1976)
Miami Dolphins, Boston Patriots
7 First Team All Pros (AFL); 2 Second Team All Pros (1 AFL/1 NFL); 8 Pro Bowls (6 AFL/2 NFL); 2 Title Wins; 2 Title Losses (1 AFL/1 NFL); 1 GridFe Godzilla Award (AFL); 4 GridFe Enforcer Awards (AFL)
Standing just 5’11” and weighing a meager 220 pounds, what Buoniconti lacked in size, he more than made up for in talent and tenacity. He was the centerpiece of the formidable No-Name Defense that led the Miami Dolphins to three consecutive Super Bowls and the NFL’s only undefeated and untied season. On a roster full of legends, Buoniconti was the one named team MVP three times. He was a terror against the run, and his 32 career interceptions are the most of any middle linebacker in history. Perhaps his most important interception occurred in Super Bowl VII, when his pick and 32 yard return set up Jim Kiick‘s deciding touchdown run.
Dick Butkus (1965-1973)
6 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 5 GridFe Enforcer Awards
Butkus is often called the greatest middle linebacker of all time, and a few minutes of watching any Bears game during his prime is all one needs to know why. He possessed the preternatural diagnostic ability to sniff out plays and be where he needed to be, when he needed to be there. Throwing his body around with reckless abandon, he earned nicknames like “The Animal” and “The Enforcer.” Every tackle was a trainwreck that made running backs contemplate early retirement. Highlight reels of his knockout hits have led to the revisionist idea that he wasn’t strong in coverage, but that notion is outlandish. Butkus was among the finest cover backers of his era.
Jack Lambert (1974-1984)
8 First Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Wins; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 5 GridFe Enforcer Awards
The fierce Lambert was an imposing figure who loved lining up right in front of quarterbacks prior to the snap in order to strike fear into their hearts. Despite his legacy of intimidation, it was his ability to both gracefully navigate traffic to make plays on ball carriers and swiftly drop into coverage that stand out on tape. He is among the greatest cover men ever to play middle linebacker, and he changed the way the position is played, manning the hole between the two deep zones in Bud Carson’s Cover-2 defense. With his ability to stymie opposing passing attacks, Lambert was a key cog in the Steel Curtain’s defensive destruction machine that brought four Super Bowl titles to Pittsburgh.
Mike Singletary (1981-1992)
8 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 10 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 3 GridFe Enforcer Awards
Earning the nickname Samurai for his singular focus and fervor, Singletary’s career is defined by nearly unrivaled intensity and commitment to destroying the opposition. Named Associated Press defensive player of the year in both 1985 and 1988, he tackled runners with fury and was capable in limited coverage responsibilities. Singletary was the heartbeat of the famed and feared 46 defense that led the 1985 Bears to a 15-1 season and one of the most astounding runs in postseason history on their way to the franchise’s only Super Bowl win.5
Ray Lewis (1996-2012)
9 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 13 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 2 GridFe Godzilla Awards; 6 GridFe Enforcer Awards
Ray Lewis is one of the few middle linebackers with a claim to the title of greatest of all time. Simply put, he had no holes in his game. He was fast and powerful, with peerless sideline to sideline range. Few could match his technical ability to shed blockers and stuff runs up the middle. His football intelligence is legendary, and it allowed him to excel at a demanding position long after his physical peak. Lewis is in the upper echelon of coverage linebackers in history as well. He played with contagious passion, commanded universal respect and praise, and was the unquestioned leader of Baltimore defenses that were almost always great.
- In the modern game, the importance of coverage is now much, much more important than run stuffing. I suspect future voting for modern players will reflect evolving expectations. ↩
- Others receiving votes: Willie Lanier*, Brian Urlacher, Patrick Willis*. I did not vote for Randy Gradishar this year, but after watching extensive footage of him since then, I will absolutely be banging the table for him next time. ↩
- In the days when that actually mattered a great deal. ↩
- That includes an interception in 1961, two fumble recoveries in 1962, and a sack in the first Super Bowl. ↩
- The 1985 Bears won their playoff games 21-0, 24-0, and 46-10. ↩