Saints’ Sackmaster General : Pro football: Pat Swilling, who leads NFL with 8 1/2 sacks, is best little-known linebacker in league.
Bill Parcells thought it was funny. Lawrence Taylor apparently didn’t.
Shortly before the Giants’ NFC playoff game against the Rams in January, 1990, the New York coach told his star linebacker he had a plane ticket for him.
“I want you to go to New Orleans,” Parcells said. “Go find Pat Swilling. Give him your plane ticket and your helmet. You stay in New Orleans and have a nice time. He’ll play.”
Taylor stalked away in a huff.
Taylor, as famous as any defensive player who’s ever played the game, had failed to get to Jim Everett in a regular-season game against the Rams. But he finished with 15 sacks in 1989 and was named to his ninth consecutive Pro Bowl.
Swilling, who had sacked Everett four times in two games that season, had 16 1/2 sacks, but he made his first Pro Bowl appearance only because Ram Coach John Robinson saw fit to add him to the NFC squad.
One guy is known all over the country simply as L.T. The other--who leads the league in sacks with 8 1/2, returned an interception for a touchdown, has forced three fumbles and recovered one--lags way behind in the name-recognition department.
Even in the Bayou, a P.S. I Love You bumper sticker still means the owner likes the Southern California desert.
Is Swilling bothered by this? Well . . .
“Yes and no,” he says. “Yes, because I think I’m one of the elite players in the league. No, because my ego isn’t that big anyway. I’m not one of those guys who runs around pulling his own chain, saying, “I’m the best in the league. I’m better than L.T.’
“I think being in New Orleans has been good for me and I like playing here, but being in a bigger media market, I probably would have gotten more exposure. And people would be more aware of my ability. Now, people are starting to say, ‘Who’s this Pat Swilling and what’s he doing?’ But I’ve been doing it for years.”
He certainly has been doing it to the Rams for years. They can’t help but notice that Swilling is one of the best outside pass rushers in the league. Every time they load up a tape of one of their games against the Saints, there he is, streaking across the screen like a runaway truck down the Grapevine.
Even on tape, Everett must wince in anticipation of the oncoming collision.
Swilling has been chasing Everett around the Ram backfield since they were rookies in 1986. By now, Everett has learned his only chance for survival comes with a little help from his friends.
“You can put him in the category of a Lawrence Taylor,” Everett said. “You try to have your guys, if they’re not going out on a pass route, take a peek at No. 56 and see what’s happening with him before they go anywhere.”
So, while some fans outside of Louisiana may have trouble remembering his name, opposing players and coaches can’t get Swilling out of their minds.
“He gets recognition from the people who count,” Saint Coach Jim Mora says. “The people who watch him play every week on film, his peers, opposing coaches and players, I think they all have a great deal of respect for Pat, as well they should.”
Swilling would like to put a new spin on an old adage and suggest that respect ought to begin at home. Despite his obvious contributions to the Saints’ defense, Swilling and the Saints have not had a harmonious relationship.
In 1989, after holding out through training camp and the entire exhibition season, he settled for a one-year, $350,000 deal laced with incentives. After a better-than-Taylor year, he earned about $185,000 more in incentives. And he can thank Robinson--who made him a Pro Bowl selection--for about $25,000 of that.
Swilling held out again before the 1990 season and things got increasingly ugly. He questioned the Saints’ desire to win. He said he was “fed up.” And he called President/General Manager Jim Finks’ negotiating tactics “the most ludicrous cat-and-mouse thing I’ve even seen in my life.”
Finks reacted by saying he thought “that whole sack thing is overrated.”
After 40 days of barb-trading, Swilling obtained a two-year, $1.475 million contract.
He started slowly in ’89 and ‘90, but this year he jumped in among the sack leaders as fast he gets off the line of scrimmage. And he admits that winning the sack title would be a thrill.
“Yeah, it would be a big thing,” he said. “I had the opportunity two years ago. This year, I’m doing pretty well and, yeah, it would be exciting to lead the league.”
At the moment, he’s battling the Saints’ other outside linebacker, Rickey Jackson, who already has eight sacks.
“There’s some unstated competition there,” Swilling said, “but we just go out and play hard. It’s always good for our team if either of us get sacks.”
Swilling is quick to point out that the high-caliber of play by the Saints’ entire defense--they are ranked No. 1 in the NFL--allows him to come speeding off that outside corner and do his job.
The defensive line has been providing the inside push that keeps the quarterback from stepping up and out of Swilling’s path. The secondary has covered well enough to keep receivers from getting open quickly.
And then there’s the linebacking crew, a group of Pro Bowl selections that includes inside backers Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson (who is doubtful for Sunday’s game at Anaheim Stadium because of a knee injury).
“I don’t think there’s another four playing as well as we’re playing,” Swilling said. “We’ve consistently made the plays that have carried this football team for the last four or five years.”
The linebacking corps hasn’t had to carry New Orleans this year, but it’s still the first thing you talk about when discussing the Saints, who are off to their best start at 7-1.
Swilling is clearly off to his best start as well, and Mora, not surprisingly, points to Swilling’s attendance in training camp this season as the reason.
“Each year, Pat gets better as a football player and that’s certainly one factor,” Mora said. “But the fact that he was in training camp from Day 1 has had a lot to do with his productivity this year as compared to the last two years when he missed all of training camp.”
Swilling isn’t so sure.
“Maybe it’s going to camp,” he said, “but two years ago I didn’t go to camp and had 16 1/2 sacks, so it all depends on how you look at it. Last year, in the first few games, we played three or four run-and-shoot teams that threw the ball really quick, so there’s a lot of different factors that go into it.
“I do think being in camp helps, but my contract is up again this year and if I don’t make it to camp, I don’t make it.”
Outside pass rushers such as Taylor and Swilling are changing the game of football. They have become No. 1 on every offensive coordinator’s priority list.
First, you figure out a way to stop them from decapitating your quarterback. Then, you work on developing a game plan.
Last week in New Orleans, the Bears double-teamed Swilling on almost every play and they kept him guessing where the help would come from. To get to quarterback Jim Harbaugh, he always had to beat an offensive tackle, then sometimes a running back who stayed in to block, or the center who pulled out to help, or a tight end who tried to sandwich him against the tackle.
It’s as much a chess game as a battle of gladiators.
“Any time you play against a great pass rusher, you certainly have to take them into account before you put anything else up on the board,” Ram offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese said. “You can’t have your offensive linemen blocking him one-on-one down after down, because he’s certainly going to win more than his share of those.”
While admitting he may have lost a split-second off the 4.5 speed he showed as a rookie, Swilling still comes off the line of scrimmage like he was shot out of a cannon.
“I work every year on my speed,” Swilling said. “I do a lot of track work in the off-season to try to improve my quick start. I don’t know if I could run a 4.5 again, but I can definitely move in and out quickly and more effectively.”
The Saints are what Robinson calls a “dome team.” If so, Swilling is the quintessential dome player.
“They’ve done a great job of using their environment to help them,” Robinson said. “They have great up-the-field speed and the AstroTurf helps that. And the noise also denies the offense the chance to get off on the snap count. Two times against Chicago, Swilling ran right by the tackle. The guy never got out of his stance.”
Earlier in the season, Robinson questioned how the Saints would fare on a grass field, especially on the “cow pasture” at Atlanta. Final score at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium Sept. 29: Saints 27, Falcons 6. New Orleans had five sacks. Atlanta had 129 yards passing.
“It doesn’t matter where we play,” Swilling said. “Just bring ‘em on and we’ll play. I think of myself as a big-game player and every time we play the Rams, it’s a big game to me.”
Don’t repeat that to Everett. He’ll probably feel much better Sunday if gets some sleep tonight.
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