State Your Case: John Anderson

A 1980s NFL all-decade selection at linebacker

(Published June 2019)

Football has always been a game of blocking and tackling…until 1982.

Then it became a game of blocking and sacking. That’s when the NFL officially recognized sacks as a statistic. In so doing, the position “outside linebacker” evolved into “edge rusher.” More and more teams moved to the 3-4 defensive scheme to free up that speed off the edge. By 1985, 23 of the 28 NFL teams were lining up in a 3-4.

Lawrence Taylor was busy reinventing the weakside linebacker position in New York in the 1980s. Hall of Famers Robert Brazile, Charles Haley and Derrick Thomas plus Pat Swilling and Tim Harris also were making names for themselves off the weak side because of the havoc they could create with their pass rush. Hall of Famers Kevin Greene, Rickey Jackson and Andre Tippett were wreaking that same havoc from the strong side.

As those edge rushers grew in stature, collecting the Pro Bowl invitations and post-season honors, the standing of the pure outside linebackers on the football field diminished. That explains how John Anderson and Carl Banks were forgotten by the Hall of Fame selection committee.

Anderson and Banks played a traditional left outside linebacker in the 1980s over on the strong side. NFL teams historically have focused their rushing attacks to that side because of the extra blocker (tight end). So Anderson and Banks were asked to makes plays on their side of the line of scrimmage, not just the offensive backfield. They were charged with stopping the run and covering tight ends and running backs in the passing game. So the strength of their games was the ability to tackle, not sack.

Anderson and Banks were selected to the 1980s NFL all-decade team but neither one has ever been a finalist for the Hall of Fame. It’s not the first time their play has been discounted. The two left side linebackers went to a combined one Pro Bowl in the decade. That was Banks in 1986. Anderson was shut out. The only Green Bay linebacker to go to a Pro Bowl in the 1980s was Harris after a 19 1/2-sack season in 1989.

So Anderson’s tackling ability went unnoticed. He collected a career-high 150 tackles in 1981 but there was no Pro Bowl as a reward. He finished his 12-year career as the leading tackler in Green Bay history with 1,020. Again, no one has noticed. There is no love for tacklers in the NFL any more, just sackers.

There also is little love for coverage backers. Anderson intercepted 25 passes in his career. Only seven outside linebackers in NFL history intercepted more and four of them (Jack Ham, Ted Hendricks, Bobby Bell and Dave Robinson) have busts in Canton. His 25 interceptions also were as many as Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks, a first-ballot electee in 2014. Anderson led the Packers in interceptions twice, picking off three passes in the strike-shortened 1982 season and five more in 1983.

It should be pointed out that Hall of Fame outside linebackers Lawrence Taylor, Robert Brazile, Charles Haley, Derrick Thomas, Rickey Jackson, Kevin Greene and Andre Tippett from the 1980s combined for only 39 career interceptions – and Brazile had 13 of them. Again, it’s the sacks that matter in the Hall of Fame discussion, not the interceptions.

Anderson also recovered 15 fumbles, giving him 40 career takeaways. Only five outside linebackers in NFL history came up with the football more often and two of them, Ham and Ted Hendricks, are in the Hall of Fame. But it’s the sacks that matter in the Hall of Fame discussion, not takeaways. Anderson only collected 19 ½ sacks in his rare pass rush opportunities.

The other issue in Anderson’s candidacy is the lack of success by the Packers during the 1980s. Green Bay won only 43 percent of its games during his career and Anderson played in only two playoff games, both in 1982. Of the 280 players enshrined in Canton, 67 percent of them won championships. Of the 103 players enshrined in Canton who did not win a championship, only 37 played defense. That’s an unfortunate double that has bogged down Anderson’s candidacy.

Anderson and his career are deserving of discussion by the Hall of Fame selection committee. And maybe he’ll get it if tackling ever becomes vogue again in the NFL.


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