State Your Case: Carl Banks

A 1980s NFL all-decade selection

(Published November 2015)

Carl Banks formed one half of the greatest outside linebacker combination of the NFL’s 3-4 defensive era. Maybe of any scheme of any era.

Banks teamed with Lawrence Taylor to dominate offenses and power the New York Giants to two Lombardi Trophies. Banks stuffed ball carriers in the run game and muscled tight ends in the passing game from his strongside linebacker spot. Taylor terrorized quarterbacks in the pocket from his weakside linebacker spot.

Both were named to the 1980s NFL all-decade team. But only half of this combination is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Taylor was a first ballot selection. Banks has been eligible now for 15 years but never even been discussed as a finalist.

There are only 12 outside linebackers in Canton — and not a single set of teammates. Pick one, and the quota is filled. But Banks and Taylor became the first set of linebacking bookends from the same team selected to an all-decade team. No pair has been named to an all-decade team since those Giants.

Banks was an exceptional player. Maybe he should become an exception in Canton as well.

“I loved this player,” said Hall-of-Fame coach Bill Parcells, who won his two Super Bowls with the Banks-Taylor linebacking tandem. “He was a rough-and-tumble guy with intelligence and an understanding of situational football. He was dominant versus tight ends, a powerful blitzer, a strongside run tone-setter and a relentless competitor. He was a very key player for us.”

Banks was a key player for Michigan State, too, when he was a senior in 1983. His head coach, George Perles, recognized his unique skill set for the strongside position. So Perles, a former defensive coordinator of Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain in the 1970s, invited Hall-of-Famer Jack Ham to campus that spring to work with Banks. Ham is regarded as one of the best strongside linebackers in NFL history.

“No one has ever done it better,” Banks said. “His footwork, hand placement and leverage was incredible for a guy 205 pounds. And he made it look so easy. He taught me the whole art of playing the strongside position.

“I haven’t been blocked since.”

Banks certainly wasn’t blocked as a senior at Michigan State. He became the school’s first All-America linebacker since George Webster in 1966, then went to the Giants on the third overall pick of the 1984 draft. He broke into the starting lineup in 1986 and was the leading tackler on a New York team that captured its first Lombardi Trophy. Banks made a career-high 120 tackles and added a team-high 14 more in the Super Bowl victory over Denver.

Banks followed that up with a team-leading 113 tackles in 1987, with a career-best nine sacks, earning the only Pro Bowl selection of his career. Banks would go on to have 100-tackle seasons with two other franchises as well, the Redskins and Browns. But there were no more Pro Bowls. Even when he forced seven fumbles in 1989, there was no Pro Bowl as a reward.

That’s the nature of the strongside linebacker position — you don’t build statistics. You play the run and engage tight ends as they attempt to run their routes — “a great disrupter of routes,” Parcells added. And Banks did his disrupting during a golden era of tight-end play, lining up against Hall-of-Famers Ozzie Newsome, Kellen Winslow and Shannon Sharpe, plus receiving champions (Todd Christensen) and Pro Bowlers (Eric Green, Keith Jackson, Brent Jones, Steve Jordan and Jay Novacek).

So dominant were Banks and Taylor on the edge of the defense that everything was funneled inside to Harry Carson. To his credit, Carson made the tackles — enough tackles to get voted to nine Pro Bowls. And Taylor was amassing the sacks — enough sacks to get voted to 10 Pro Bowls.

“Without Carl, L.T. would not have had the same production,” said Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick, who coordinated New York’s two Super Bowl defenses for Parcells. “Carl was the best at playing over a tight end and that allowed L.T. to play more on the open side. Wherever Banks aligned, it was harder to help on L.T. This forced the offense to balance up more in their formations and protections, which gave L.T. more opportunities.”

Banks’s value was obvious on the field but invisible on the stat sheet. He wasn’t the primary blitzer. That was Taylor’s job. Banks chased tight ends as Taylor was chasing quarterbacks. Banks wound up with almost as many passes defensed in his career (35) as he did sacks (40). PBUs don’t send a player to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl nor to Canton for that gold jacket.

So Carson and Taylor have their busts. They played stats positions. Banks did not. That kept him out of the Pro Bowl, and it’s keeping him out of Canton.

“It’s a very subjective viewpoint that gets skewed by the glamour aspects of it,” said Banks of the respective voting. “My numbers may not speak the volumes that some people have a threshold for. But ask people who played or coached against me. Ask the offensive linemen. Ask the tight ends. The Hall is about the dominance of a player. They are still teaching in New England off of my (game) tapes. I had a unique skill. I had a great career.”

A Hall-of-Fame skill, in fact. But it remains an unrecognized one.

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