NEW YORK (AP) — Dick Butkus used to make running backs think about retirement — before they got into the NFL.
Jack Lambert could force opponents to throw up on themselves. Conrad Dobler would throw up on defensive linemen when he wasn’t biting them or gouging them.
No defensive back was more feared in the 1970s than Jack Tatum, then Ronnie Lott was the man in the ’80s. Each could rock a ball carrier into the cheap seats.
And if Jim Brown wasn’t the greatest running back ever — hard to argue that someone else was better — he certainly was the most intimidating.
Fear always has played a big part in American football. But nowadays, it’s not so much the super-physical hitters or runners who are dreaded by opponents. It’s anyone who can beat you and your team, no matter the manner in which they do it.
So NFL players frequently mention the hardly Herculean when asked who gets them all nervous and nauseous. The answers range from the cerebral Peyton Manning to the speedy Chris Johnson to the crafty Drew Brees to the sky-walking Larry Fitzgerald.
But they don’t really make opponents sweat or get indigestion or produce nightmares the night before games. So who does?
“There’s a few guys in this league right now that every team has to game-plan for,” New York Jets guard Damien Woody says. “When it comes to offensive linemen, you’re usually talking about pass rushers. I’ve played against DeMarcus Ware, and he’s right at the top of the list for me. He’s one heck of a football player.
“There’s other guys, though, like Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis from Indianapolis, who make it really tough on you. Jared Allen is a tough cookie, too. Those would be who I would say, as far as intimidating players, those big-time pass rushers.”
But none of them is known for tearing opponents into pieces and spitting them out on the way back to the huddle.
Maybe today’s players simply want to be politically correct and not say anything to rock any boats, particularly when a Ray Lewis or Brian Dawkins can sink their ship with one hit. Or maybe the NFL itself has tamed down the game so much it has diminished, if not entirely eliminated, the most fearsome forces.
“The fear that Jack Tatum put in the game was through his aggressiveness. Through the league rules and regulations, you can’t really hit or be as aggressive as guys like Chuck Cecil, Ronnie Lott and Jack Tatum in their days,” says Tennessee safety Chris Hope, now in his ninth NFL season. “Growing up as a safety, I was always known as a hard hitter and I looked up to guys like that, Ronnie Lott. But you know what? We can’t do that anymore.”
Washington running back Larry Johnson, an eight-year veteran, agrees that the bite has been taken out of the game.
“There’s so many rules added to the game, there’s nobody really who’s out there,” he says. “It used to be Rodney Harrison back in the day, but all these rules came out, and you can’t hit guys’ heads … that kind of lifestyle’s gone, so there’s really nobody in the league that anybody fears as far as the ferociousness or being vicious.”
Well, maybe there are some, although not so much for ferocity as foul play.
“Dirty play is by far (Richie) Incognito, who is now with Miami,” says Washington defensive end Vonnie Holliday. “That dude has like a screw loose because he plays hard, and it’s him and he just does it, but he’ll hit you late, throw a lot of punches on you. He does that a lot, late.”
Dirtiness aside, there truly are some body-rockers left to make the pros give pause. Ware’s name comes up much of the time, in part because everyone worries about the health of their quarterback. Nobody is more of a threat to the quarterback than the Dallas linebacker.
“In my heart I feel that’s me,” Ware says about the NFL’s public enemy No. 1. “That’s the confidence you’ve got to have playing this game. Every time you go out there on that field, you’ve got to put fear in some of those guys’ hearts.
“No, I don’t fear anybody. You can’t play defense with fear in your heart. It’s not allowed.”
San Diego’s Shawne Merriman, who carried the nickname “Lights Out” — and not because he prefers darkness — has his own choice for Mr. Fearsome.
“I think you have to put Troy Polamalu up there for his relentless attitude and reckless abandon for his body,” Merriman says of the Pittsburgh safety. “You know if he doesn’t care about his body then he definitely doesn’t care about yours.”
AP Pro Football Writer Jaime Aron in Dallas and Sports Writers Bernie Wilson in San Diego, Dennis Waszak Jr. in New York, Joseph White in Washington and Teresa Walker in Nashville contributed to this story.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.