(This story originally appeared in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.)
So these three guys, Sam, Mike and Will, walk into a bar … no, wait, that's not right.
They actually walk on to a football field, each and every day throughout the fall, from the youngest of the Pop Warner kids where the helmet is too big for their head to the Dallas Cowboys. Every team in between, too. They all have a Sam, a Mike (sometimes two) and a Will.
We're not speaking of first names, and here's guessing the majority of football followers know that. We're talking about linebackers, the guys in the middle of the defense who run forward, backward, side-to-side, more or less every direction on the compass.
And while the Cowboys most certainly have their "Sam" (strong-side), "Mike" (middle) and "Will" (weak-side), just like every other team, their linebackers – Andrew Gachkar, Anthony Hitchens, Sean Lee, Kyle Wilber and Damien Wilson, who all weigh within 10 pounds of one another – are more or less interchangeable, meaning each can play all three positions. This isn't by accident.
"Oh yeah, most definitely. We wanted versatility when we brought each of these guys on board," said Matt Eberflus, in his fifth season as the team's linebackers coach. "I feel like that's a good thing. The more versatile you are, the more reps you can get, the more they can plug you in at different positions. Then who knows, if anyone, God forbid, goes down, we can fill in for them because everyone knows each position.
"Also, I feel like when they all know what to do at different positions, we can even rotate guys in for a set of downs or a possession, like the defensive line does."
However, it's worth noting that when defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli rotates the defensive linemen, it's ends replacing ends, and tackles replacing tackles. Really, outside of rookie cornerback/safety Byron Jones, there's not another player on the roster, other than the linebackers, who plays a different position. A few of the offensive linemen could move from, say, tackle to guard or vice versa if need be, but that hasn't happened the last few seasons. Even at wide receiver, it's not like Cole Beasley is going to move from the slot to the outside with Dez Bryant injured. The positions are pretty structured at the highest level, heck, even in college.
What makes linebackers unique is that in a 4-3 defense, four linemen and three linebackers, the latter three all have similar responsibilities. In layman's terms, the Sam takes on the lead blockers on run plays and is responsible for picking up the tight end releasing on pass routes.
This was originally called the strong-side because he lined up wherever the tight end did back in the days when the most common formation was the 21 personnel: quarterback, fullback, tailback, tight end and two wide receivers. Now, with all the different offensive looks, that's not always the case, which is one of, if not the main reason, linebackers need to be more interchangeable.
The Mike needs to cover the most ground, especially side-to-side, but in a Tampa 2 scheme or any hybrid, he'll also go north to south, dropping back 20, 25 yards in coverage down the middle of the field. In addition, he calls the plays, and can pick up the blocks that the Sam couldn't against the run. And if the quarterback is mobile, which is becoming more and more the case, the Mike will be his spy, looking for not only designed runs, but those that ensue after a quick read or two. These types of scrambles can usually pick up more yards than the former because the secondary is downfield and the defensive front has pushed the pocket.
That leaves the Will, which in the Cowboys' current scheme is actually the playmaking position. Think Pro Football Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks. And certainly not by coincidence, this is where we currently find Lee, who spent 2011-13 at middle linebacker.
While the job responsibilities are many and complex to decipher, with the other two linebackers picking up the blockers, the weak-side ideally has the freedom to run around and make plays. It also offers protection, fewer blocks, much less physical contact before meeting the ball carrier. The Will is usually the team's quickest linebacker, with the ability to read offenses a must.
Lee played the Will in college and also as a rookie coming off the bench in 2010, although that was in a 3-4 defensive formation, which is a somewhat different animal with the two Mikes. Still, when head coach Jason Garrett told him about the position change this past February, Lee, who missed all of last season after suffering a torn ACL in minicamp, was ready, willing and able to embrace the new gig.
"My first feeling was confidence, just because I had played there before. But to be honest, as a linebacker, we're pretty versatile where we can play all the positions," Lee said. "Also, some of the stuff is quite similar to calls and keys at the Mike. In today's game, we need to maximize what we can do, what we can contribute at linebacker because there's so much the offenses are throwing at us.
"And we're in more and more nickel situations, where a linebacker really needs to be able to play all three. So yeah, the Mike and the Will in our defense are largely similar, but there are also new scenarios to learn. When I'm watching film or studying the playbook, the game plan, my focus is on the Will, but my process is the same in terms of dealing with my keys."
To say this season is important for Lee is kind of like saying Noah encountered a few puddles along the way. The immensely talented, extremely polite and well-spoken linebacker really doesn't want to talk about the past, which is how Garrett wants all of his players to be. But, he does allow how healthy his left knee is. The ACL injury wasn't a complete surprise, as Lee partially tore it during his senior year at Penn State, in 2010. After missing three weeks then, he somehow played five more seasons on that same tear.
"The doctors, the trainers here with the Cowboys, they all deserve a lot of credit for somehow keeping that leg strong," Lee said. "I do have more confidence in my left knee, that's for sure. When there's a partial tear, there's no way not to think about that. Now it's fully healed, and I'm excited to be a part of this defense. There's a lot of talent, but the key is showing that talent on the field and building continuity. That doesn't just magically happen."
And while Lee was asked to make the shift from the middle to the weak-side, Hitchens, Mr. Versatility himself, the Swiss Army Knife of the Cowboys, has played all three positions – in the same game, no less – and last year started at least one game at each spot. He began this season playing the Mike, but is moving around again now that Rolando McClain has returned from suspension. Regardless, Hitchens will be prepared no matter where the coaches ask him to line up.
"I just think it's the scheme on defense," Hitchens said. "We have a good scheme where all the guys can play all three spots. We're basically the same body type. Most other linebackers are bigger outside guys and littler inside.
"We do a lot of things where we all play off each other. I feel like in our scheme you can do that, but there are not a lot of schemes you can do that. Our coaches do a good job here of 'trans-coaching' us, and making us study other positions early on.
"Coach (Eberflus), at first he'll plug you in, say, at Will. Halfway through training camp, he will switch you and be like, OK, I want you to do Mike now. Then eventually he'll put you at Sam. He always put everyone's numbers up and put all the positions that you possibly could play. So you always have to be studying. I like that about coach. He's making everybody think, and if you know what the other two guys are doing, it makes your job a little easier."
Hitchens was perhaps the surprise player of last season, although the Cowboys didn't blink when many criticized them for taking the linebacker from Iowa in the fourth round. The front office and scouting department couldn't care less where the Mel Kipers of the world have players on their draft boards. And one of the reasons they liked Hitchens, who played Will in college, so much more than others was because of his versatility.
"We're looking for all Will linebackers, guys that can run and guys that can play in space," Eberflus said. "That's what we're looking for, so we know that the player at that point could play Mike and could play Sam.
"You look at their skill set. I think you put, on paper, your best space player at Will linebacker and then your second-best space player at the Mike and then either a younger player or a guy that's learning the position at the Sam. Then you try to work those guys into the Mike and into the Will position.
"We don't focus so much on the playbook as much as we focus on our technique, like what to do, how to take on a block, your keys to read. Because your keys will take you everywhere you want to go in this defense."
That's really the crux of the how the Cowboys view linebackers. They want the best ones, and they will figure out which of the three positions they will play later. Garrett has a theory on this as a whole, saying, "If you start drafting and signing guys to fit a specific need, and get away from taking the best football player, the guy who fits into what we're trying to do here, you're going to get into trouble pretty quickly in terms of your roster."
Eberflus takes this to another level, saying that he's looking for guys who can make plays, guys who make hits and everyone stops what they are doing and says, "Wow, did you see that? Did you hear that?"
It's not about Mike, Sam or Will. It's not about their 40-time or how many reps they lifted. It's about a football player. And more times than not, a football player tends to stand out to an NFL head coach, a 40-year scout, a diehard fan or honestly, just a kid walking in off the street.
"If you're a hitter, you're going to get respected right away," Eberflus said. "If you can make plays and are productive, guess what, you're going to get respect. I would say that there's a term in my linebacker room that I think everybody can grasp onto. It's 'hits on the ball.'
"So to me, if you or my daughter, who is 15, or my son is 9, if they go up there and they say, 'Golly, who's No. 50?' And the reason they say that is because – and they know who Sean is, but I'm saying if they're just a layman up there – they could say that because he was hitting the ball. He was tackling the ball, he was intercepting the ball, he was causing a fumble, he was just around the ball every single snap. If the ball was there, he was there with it, and he was hitting the ball the whole time. So that to me measures a linebacker's production. All this other stuff, taking on a block and all that other stuff is important, but that's not the bottom line. Line One in the linebacker description here is to hit the ball, and I'm going to play the guys that hit the ball."
So at the end of the day, Sam, Mike and Will walk on to a football field, but which player lines up at each of those positions doesn't really matter. The Cowboys just want guys making plays, a responsibility that this linebacker corps is more than capable of handling.