The Next Great Debate
It’s hard to fathom how great they’ll both be down the road. But you know what? We don’t need to discuss down the road; they’re actually ready now. Both of them.
One of them you’re familiar with. He’s the one out west who burst onto the scene on Monday Night in Week 1 last season, before going on to claim NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. The other you’ve heard of but may not have yet encountered. He’s the one back east who terrorized opponents last year after the leaves turned.
They’re both ready, which means we need to be ready. The debate is in place. Preemptive as it may seem, it is a debate that will fully legitimize by the end of this season. It will touch the sports bars, message boards, talk radio shows—you name it. It’s a debate that football purists will grow to love. Fans on both sides will be fervid in their stance.
Initially, it will be Who is the game’s best inside linebacker. But there might simply be too much talent between the two for the debate not to spill over into Who is the game’s best defensive player period. Ultimately, this debate will be what we take away from the rookie class of 2007.
Does this all sound iffy? Perhaps then you need to meet the subjects.
The good news for the rest of the NFL is that it wasn’t as easy for Patrick Willis as he made it look. Really.
“At first it was really hard. I was frustrated, I didn’t understand how the 3-4 worked,” he says. “It was tough…I had some discussions with my coaches, it didn’t go too well and I remember just telling myself ‘either I learn it or I don’t play’ or ‘I learn it or I go home.”
As the 11th overall pick you actually thought you’d be told to go home?
“That’s what I thought. As time went on, the older guys said ‘Patrick you got picked high, you aren’t going to be sent home.’”
For a long time, home had been Bruceton, Tennessee, where Willis grew up as the oldest of four children. But for the past four years of his life, home had been Lafayette, Mississippi, where he was the middle linebacker in the Rebels’ 4-3 defense. At Ole Miss, Willis was The Man. Blessed with preternatural ball instincts and the type of speed they say you can’t coach, he became one of the fiercest tacklers in the SEC. Coming out, coaches and scouts raved about his leadership and tenacity. A caveat, however, were concerns about his diagnostic abilities and instincts— concerns the rookie did little to dispel when forced into a foreign 3-4 scheme early in training camp.
“I came in thinking that I could just use speed, agility and learn it, and that wasn’t the case at all,” Willis says. “It took me learning the game from a whole other perspective…it was an awakening.”
A grain of salt is needed here. After all, Willis recorded 50 tackles through his first five games, making any serious talk about his initial struggles akin to griping about Mozart not writing his first cantata until he was 17. Willis was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year after finishing the season as the league’s leading tackler (174) and being one of just 35 players to play every snap for his team on his side of the ball.
This past spring, while speaking about other personnel on the roster, 49ers head coach Mike Nolan casually stated to a group of reporters that “Patrick Willis is arguably the best defensive player in the league.”
More telling, perhaps, is the high praise Willis draws from venerable assistant head coach/defense, Mike Singletary, a Hall of Fame linebacker: “To me, he’s definitely a throwback to what the game really used to be all about. He’s about working hard, making it hard and being a team player.”
This isn’t to say that Willis is not without flaws. His coverage skills are solid, but factor out his raging athleticism and you see they’re really closer to average. He could also stand to make more run-stopping plays at or behind the line of scrimmage in run defense, something that will come with experience and an improved supporting cast.
“Patrick is not special yet,” says Singletary. “He will be. What will make him special is his work ethic and his humility.”
It’s hard to visit with Willis and not come away impressed. The 23-yearold—who addresses everyone as sir or ma’am—speaks with a sense of humility that is so pure, so genuine, you wonder if he even knows how gifted he is.
“I think there’s so much more to the game that I’m yet to learn,” Willis says. “I think that last year was just a scratch of the surface.” As he gains a better understanding of NFL offenses and builds up more wisdom behind the almost eerie calm that he exudes on the field, Willis won’t be able to avoid a collision with greatness. Asked what people will be saying about his weak-inside linebacker five years from now, Singletary replies “Don’t know. Scary thought.”
There aren’t a lot of players who can come out of Miami after three years, be drafted in the mid-twenties of the first round, wear number 52 and dominate at the middle linebacker position. In fact, so far, there have been only two. Chances are, you’ve heard of the first one. And, chances are, you’ll be hearing a lot more of the second.
“When I went to Miami, people wanted to compare me to Ray Lewis,” says Panthers second-year star Jon Beason. “I look at him and when I talk to him, that fire he has, he’s the one who controls that locker room. If I can be that guy where they say ‘Oh, Ray’s passed the torch’…
Beason cuts himself off and chuckles at the road he’s about to go down.
“Or, or, maybe, um, you know, (where people say) ‘this guy, he’s starting to look like Ray’––because Ray’s still playing with fire…
(Good save, young fella.)
“But you know, I definitely want to have that type of impact, were a guy leads a team on a defense.”
Perhaps the 23-year-old from Miramar, Florida is the second coming of Ray Lewis. Or, equally as intriguing, perhaps he’s the first coming of Jon Beason.
Only a limited number of NFL fans have witnessed the magnificence of the 237-pounder. After all, Charlotte, North Carolina is not exactly where the NFL’s hype roars loudest. Beason and the Panthers appeared on national television just once last year – if you count a Saturday night matchup on NFL Network as national television. While America was looking away, Beason was blowing up blockers, choking passing lanes and recording tackle on top of tackle (he finished the season with 140, third in the NFL).
Physically speaking, Beason has all the prerequisites of a luminous NFL linebacker. His quickness in all four cardinal directions is terrific. He’s strong and fundamentally sound, which allows him to consistently win battles at the point of attack. And, most enticing of all, his athleticism seems to augment as he closes in on the ball. That is, he finishes plays with authority. “I like to consider myself to be a fast linebacker, sideline to sideline, make plays, chase the ball,” Beason says. “And when I’m in the middle, I have an opportunity to make every one.”
Beason takes great pride in being the middle piece in Carolina’s front seven—“In a 4-3 defense, the Mike’s the guy,” he says—but it wasn’t until Week 5 that he had his opportunity to play inside. An outside linebacker at Miami (and a safety and running back in high school), Beason began his NFL career on the weak side. He was asked on the Wednesday before a Week 5 trip to New Orleans if he could slide to the middle, where he’d be responsible for orchestrating the defense.
“That first game…I made a bunch of mistakes,” he recalls. “We had to call timeout a couple of times, I didn’t get the signal or didn’t make a check or made some coverage mistakes, maybe a different gap. But I can play hard, and that factors.” That day, it factored into a game-high 13 tackles and a Carolina victory, prompting the coaching staff to make the obvious decision of turning the long-term deed to their defense over to the prodigious rookie.
“Jon is the quarterback of our defense,” says Panthers linebacker coach Ken Flajole. “We rely on him to customize the call from the sidelines if he sees an alignment, stance, formation, etc. He has natural instincts for playing the game. He understands what the offense is trying to accomplish…and has a great feel for lanes that take him to the play.”
What will we see from Beason in 2008? “Right now I’m working extremely hard, training even harder than I did last year, just because of the simple fact that everyone talks about the sophomore slump,” Beason says. “I know by any stretch of the imagination I’m not a fluke. I want to be one of the top guys every year, right up there with the best of them.
The Table is Set
If you haven’t already linked Willis and Beason, go ahead and do so. It would be wasteful not to. The inside linebacker is arguably the sexiest defensive position in football. It’s where the schematic adjustments derive and the most tackle opportunities reside. The past 10 years, football fans have not had an opportunity to debate who is the game’s most dominant inside linebacker. Ray Lewis, then, eventually, Brian Urlacher, left no doubt.
Lewis, however, is 33 and has lost the oomph that made him legendary. Urlacher remains the class of the position, but chronic neck and back pain seem destined to change that. Seattle’s Lofa Tatupu and Houston’s DeMeco Ryans are both stars in their own right, though the former tends to play reckless at times, and the latter is still learning to make impact plays on a consistent basis.
Insert the aforementioned second year gems. Both have mastered their responsibilities and have surpassed the towering expectations coming from within their own organizations. Both are über-talented to the point that, by the end of this season, they’ll be without a single exploitable weakness. Given that they both represent the rookie class of ’07, a career full of comparisons seems unavoidable.
“(Jon’s) a good football player. I like him as a person as well,” says Willis. “He’s real aggressive, he just makes plays. He reminds me of myself a lot.”
Asked if the association with the more heralded Willis annoys him, Beason, a man as competitive and honest as you’ll find, ponders the question. “It would have earlier before I met him.”
Beason goes on to cite how Willis came into the league with more experience and did not have to beat out a veteran, but rather, was awarded his starting inside job on Day One.
“I can take all that stuff and be bitter about it,” Beason says, “but meeting Patrick at the (NFL Rookie) Symposium, he was in my small group, he’s such a good due, such a hard worker, he deserves everything that’s happened for him.
“I’m always going to compete to be the best…but if people want to say my name in the same breath as his, that’s fine by me. It’s good company because I like his game. If I didn’t think he was a good player it’d be another thing, but he’s great.”
But is he The Best?
| Carolina Panthers, Jon Beason, Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers