Saturday, August 29, 2020

How About Another Career Worthy Remembering? Mike Wilcher—One Fine Linebacker

 By John Turney

Recently we've been outlining the careers of players who were really good, who did a lot of things and didn't pile up tons of honors or stats because they played so many roles. 

Today is yet another player who fits that mold—Mike Wilcher.

Wilcher replaced Lawrence Taylor at the University of North Carolina and put up impressive numbers. He wasn't as big or fast as L.T. and teams looking for a rushing linebacker were hoping he could do the same in the NFL.  Wilcher recorded 68 tackles his senior season and totaled 20 tackles for loss in his junior and senior seasons combined. 

Wilcher showing a little athleticism. Credit: UNC SID 

Well, Wilcher couldn't be the next Lawrence Taylor. No one could, L.T. was just too special and rare for others to duplicate. But just because he wasn't the "next L.T." does not mean he didn't do some special things in the NFL, which he will outline. 

Wilcher was 6-3, 238, and ran a 4.73 forty going into the 1983 NFL Draft. The Rams switched to a 3-4 defense that season and were looking for an outside linebacker who could get to the passer and though Wilcher would be a good one.

They took him near the top of the second-round and that first season he was part of a fine special teams unit while learning the nuances of the NFL 3-4 defense Fritz Shurmur ran.

In 1984 he got his break when starting right outside linebacker George Andrews hurt at the three-quarter mark of the season and Wilcher was ready to step in, starting the final five games. Wilcher, though, John Robison felt, needed to get meaner. "He's still calling Jack Youngblood, "Mr. Youngblood" Robinson told the media. 

Andrews tried to come back in 1985 but his knee would not cooperate and the ROLB job was Wilcher's and he held it through 1990 and did a quality job each year. 

In 1985 Wilcher was really an unsung hero on the defense that took the Rams to the NFC Championship game. He was not only a fine rusher (12.5 sacks) but he eventually was the Rams nickel and dime linebacker that year and held that position through 1990. What that meant was he did a good enough job in coverage to not just be a rusher on third down, sometimes he'd cover a back or tight end.

Wilcher in his usual position (ROLB) in the Rams base 3-4 defense 

Wilcher as lone LBer in nickel. Vince Newsome, safety is the other "linebacker" 

Wilcher as one of two linebackers in a 3-2-6 

Wilcher as the lone linebacker (over the TE) in a 4-1-6 defense

What Wilcher proved was he understood the nickel/dime concepts and Fritz Shurmur could use him as a blitzer or as a cover linebacker in either zone or man. Some rush backers of that era just became a defensive end in nickel with never a thought given to allowing them to be what is now called a "rover" or "joker" in sub defenses. Wilcher would often stand up and be a defensive end, but more often that not he was too valuable to do only that in sub defenses.

Here are his career stats—

Chart Credit: PFJ 
The scheme remained basically the same for the Rams from 1985-87, though there were some wrinkles but Wicher's job was as the ROLB in the base and as a linebacker in the nickel and dime situations.

Fritz Shurmur ran a fairly "vanilla" defense from 1983-87, not blitzing a ton, but some. It was a so-called "bend-but-don't-break" defense, focusing on playing tough, keeping plays in front of them, not allowing deep passes and believing that teams could not put together a lot fo 10, 12-play drives, that someone in that series the solid tackling and discipline zones would cause teams to make mistakes and have to punt. 
Here is a dime defense with Wilcher (and Greene) as the two-point DEs

In 1988, though, there was a new emphasis. There were injuries on the defensive line and as a result, the Rams had to use a new concept at times and it worked so well, they began to use it a lot. The concept was the "Eagle" defense that could stem or shift to what they called the "Hawk" defense.

Now, this scheme had been in the Rams playbooks since 1983 when Shurmur arrived, but in this case of 1988 the Rams deployed five linebackers in the scheme because he had versatile linebackers who could do more than one thing. Wilcher was one of those, as was Kevin Greene and Fred Strickland and Mark Jerue as well.

In short, the "Eagle" defense is the same as the Bears 46 defense but in the late-1980s Shurmer had a "nosebacker" either Strickland or Jerue replace the starting base nose (Alvin Wright) and that player—both linebackers with some training as defensive linemen could play over the nose on a play or they could "stem" or shift to am inside linebacker position and that shift was called the "Hawk".

The Rams were so well-coached that they could use that defense quite often and the eight-man front aspect made it tough to run and the skills of the outside rushers (Greene and Wilcher) made it effective against passing plays as well. It was a small, smart, well-disciplined group and they made it work ver well.

The Rams didn't abandon their sub-schemes (nickel and dime) wither. They stayed with those and in that scheme they often used just two defensive linemen, the tackles. The defensive ends were often Kevin Greene and Mike Wilcher. Or sometimes Brett Faryniarz would play right end and Wilcher would be the nickel linebacker. It was changed often and gave offenses different looks.

There were even times in 1989 when there was a second-type of a "five-linebacker defense", one other than the Eagle/Hawk. And that was simply a dime defense (or could be nickel with a safety playing a linebacker spot) that had five linebackers as the defensive line and Wilcher as the "joker" or "rover" if you will—sometimes rushing, sometimes in coverage. 

In 1989 Gary Jeter left to New England in Plan B free agency and Bill Hawkins took his spot. Hawkins was never going to be able to match Jeter's production and Fred Strickland had shown he could play defensive tackle and get a good rush, so there were times he was a defensive tackle in nickel. And when Bill Hawkins was out or wasn't quite what he needed to be the Rams would play George Bethune as a defensive tackle. Faryniarz was usually the right end and Kevin Greene the left defensive end.

The Rams rose those defense schemes to the NFC Championship game (and like 1985 they got blown out). Nonetheless, they got further with less than many people thought a gimmick defense could take them. 

Here are some examples of what we are describing—
A 3-4 with Wilcher putting a hand down, making it a 4-3 over in actuality (also safety walked up)


Five linebacker defense, this time with Wilcher "mugging" and Strickland back on second level

Six DBs, Wilcher lined up as a three-technique here, he could rush or drop

Sub defense-6 DBs—Wilcher could blitz, or blitz-peel and cover RB or drop to zone

Dime, Wilcher the lone LBer, up front are a DT and three LBers manning the 4-man line

This is the Eagle defense, if the nose droped to ILB, it would be "Hawk"

This is the Hawk. Strickland "steming" from nose tackle

Finally, here is the 3-4 base 
Here is 6 DBs with Wilcher covering the slot 

In 1990 the team suffered some losses and for whatever reason, Fritz Shurmur got the blame. John Robinson, some said to save his own skin, hire Jeff Fisher to bring in his 46 defense and the base 3-4 was out. It was going to be a 4-3 with an emphasis on Bears frons in 1991. 

That left no position for Wilcher. He'd never played in a 4-3 defense and was cut in August by the Rams. Head coach John Robinson said, "We'd love to have a young Mike Wilcher playing in this scheme. He would be an impact player for us".

A few days late Wilcher was signed by the Chargers but was cut in early September, playing just two games for them and that was the last of Wilcher's NFL career. 

So, when a fan might see that Wilcher only had 38.5 career sacks they may not be impressed. But what they may not have considered is that Wilcher was just more than a rusher. We've shown he was a solid 3-4 base linebacker, couple play defensive end, and was a rushbacker who could play inside in sub defenses and do it on very successful defensive units. 

In 1988 and 1989 Proscout, Inc. ranked him as a top 5 "COB" their term for a combined outside 'backer or hybrid linebacker/linemen and in 1985 he wasn't a Pro Bowler, but certainly had a season worthy of it. 

In today's NFL, Wilcher skill set would fit nicely—linebacker with his size who could play base defense well, rush over a tackle or blitz and beat a running back with a rush and who also can cover well enough to be on the field all three downs perhaps something like Clay Matthews III would be an apt comparable. 

Nonetheless, when you see th name "Mike Wilcher" most of you will know a little more about him than you did before. If that is true, we did our job. 


  1. Thank you for this Mike Wilcher write up. As long time UNC fan I really enjoyed this. Mike was solid.

  2. In the mid-80's, one football magazine (it may have been 86, the year after Mike had 12.5 sacks) said that he was the Andre Tippett of the NFC.

  3. Love those early 80's UNC uni's with the big block letters.