We always assume they want to be quarterbacks, right? And look, through the years, quarterbacks always have been the coolest guys in the room. Who wouldn’t have wanted to be Joe Namath in 1970 or so, throwing tight 65-yard spirals on the field, squiring Raquel Welch and Ann-Margret on screen?
Who wouldn’t have wanted to be Snake Stabler around 1976 or so, studying his game plan by the light of a juke box, making it all up as he went along one week after another, one fourth quarter after another?
“I’ve had third-and-15 my whole life,” Stabler once said. “Everyone’s had rocky moments from Day 1. But sometimes you pick up third-and-long, and that’s where you make your money. That’s where the satisfaction comes, from the game and in life.”
Yeah. Quarterbacks are cool.
But they aren’t the only cool ones. Luke Kuechly reminds us now that linebackers are awfully damn cool, too, and they have an added benefit of being able to lay the hammer every now and again, as opposed to quarterbacks, who mostly get to only play the nail.
Dick Butkus was a linebacker, after all, as fearsome a sight as there ever has been in the NFL. Mike Singletary was a linebacker, those wide eyes seeing everything on a field a split second before any of it happened. Lawrence Taylor was a linebacker, and there wasn’t a better football player who has ever lived. Jack Lambert was a linebacker, and Chuck Bednarik, and Ray Nitschke, who looked so perfect as a linebacker they probably should have just changed the name of the position to “Nitschke.”
Now there is Kuechly, whose Panthers will host the Cardinals on Sunday evening for a spot in Super Bowl 50. There is Kuechly, all of 24 years old, past winner of the AP’s Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards already, three straight first-team All-Pro selections, and counting.
“He’s a guy,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera says, “who is all over the field. He’s a force of nature.”
He is so good that even when he makes a “bad” play — such as when Atlanta’s Julian Jones grabbed a long bomb over his head in Week 16, leading to the Panthers’ only loss of the season — it is a actually a breathtaking play because, what in the world was Kuechly doing all the way downfield, guarding Jones, very nearly neutralizing that play? Can you name five linebackers who could do that?
Can you name two?
If you were 12 years old, and you were looking for a football hero, would you scan the quarterbacks for your idol? Would you be a Manning brother? Tom Brady? Cam Newton is awfully fun to watch, and so is Russell Wilson. Would you rather be them?
Or would you rather be Kuechly?
“He’s got great instincts, but he can run, he’s really fast,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “What he really is, he’s a great pass defender. People see all the tackles, but they do a great job of keeping him clean, to make the tackles. But he’s a great pass defense guy.”
Kuechly’s touchdown return of a Wilson interception last week backed up an early Panthers offensive touchdown and seemed to set a lasting tone for that divisional game, in which the Panthers surged to a 31-0 lead before settling for a 31-24 win. And it is his overall presence that seems to fuel who the Panthers are on his side of the ball, every bit as much as Newton commands the offensive side.
And now they all sit 60 minutes from The Big Game.
“It’s one of those things you work extremely hard for,” Kuechly said. “I think you could ask around the whole league. All 16 teams in the NFC have that same goal and for us to be playing for it is a pretty neat deal.”