Sunday, October 3, 2021

Michael McCrary—The First "High-Motor Guy"?

 By John Turney 
Michael McCrary—The First "High-Motor Guy"?

Okay, he wasn't the first, but he's the first guy we heard that term consistently applied to. In looking back that team first appeared in print, which we are aware of, was in 1992 applied to Michael Barrow. But in scouting arenas, it may have been around longer. But when Joel Buchsbaum used it concerning Barrow it was the first in the public arena we could find.

Less than a year later McCrary's Seahawk defensive line coach applied it to him and it stuck. It simply meant he worked hard, played hard—every snap, every rep. 

Later we've seen it applied to John Randle, Dwight Freeney, Chris Long, and scores of other players but and sure, before him there were tons of pass rushers that played every snap or as Hank Stram said "danced every dance" or were "100 percenters". But McCrary was the "high-motor guy". 

McCrary had to be. He was undersized coming out of Wake Forests (maybe 235) but did run a 4.59 forty which was fast but not freakish—remember Jevon Kearse ran a 4.43, Freeney was sub 4.5 so he was fast but not lightning-like. 

McCrary had to make the most of his speed and limited size (he did gain weight, he didn't stay under 240) with hustle and technique. And he did, and it cost him his knees. But more on that later in this post.

McCary was a three-year letterman at Wake Forest and as a senior was Second-team All-ACC setting the school's single-season record for sacks (15) and tackles for loss (23). McCrary remained the school's career leader in sacks and is still third in tackles for loss.

However, he was not selected until the 7th round, largely based on his speed. His was about 20-30 pounds too light to be a high-round pick. 

McCrary was a special teams standout and a nickel rusher for his first few years and always gave 100% on the field and in practice. Where he lacked was in the off-hours where he liked the Seattle nightlife (he liked to boogie—sorry, couldn't resist) so he didn't do film study like he could have and that likely held him back.
So, his first three years were not productive as a base or even nickel player, really just as a special teams player, though as a rookie he did have four sacks but then just had 2.5 the next two seasons.

In 1995 he played for $350,000 (after earning $126,000 and $134,000 in each of his first two seasons) and didn't make the kind of progress the Seahawks wanted (five missed games, had just nine tackles and one sack) and in August 1996 he was going to be cut, but the 'Hawks offered him a contract cut of $150,000, to stay. So, for $200,000 McCrary was going to be a backup for the fourth straight year. However, early in the season, the starter, Antonio Edwards, got hurt and McCrary took over and played well, never giving up the starting job and then late in the season recorded seven sacks in the last two games.

As timing would have it the $200,000 contract was a one-year deal so he was an unrestricted free agent. The Seahawks signed Chad Brown to a big-money deal and he was going to be a linebacker in base and a right defensive end in nickel so there was not going to be much of a role for McCrary. The Seahawks offered him $1 million which McCrary and his agent rejected.
After a fairly lengthy NFL tour that included Philly, Miami, and other cities, McCrary chose Baltimore and their four-year $8 million contract with a $1.8 million signing bonus.  

By then (call in 1996) he was working on his craft, doing unorthodox things like, as he once described, doing the same move three times in a row because no one would do that and a tackle would never expect it. He also had worked in martial arts since high school and continued training in it into the pros he felt it helped his hand-eye coordination was enhanced because of that.

McCrary said he always liked to keep tackles guessing. As was mentioned he would sometimes do the same move three times in a row because on that third rep the tackle would surely not be expecting it, but he'd also confuse matters by showing a different stance each time on all three reps. A slight chance of weight, lean or different hand down. 

His then-defensive coach Marvin Lewis said that McCrary has the ability to convert speed to power and power to speed, that even though he was a "speed" guy he was not a one-trick pony that would disappear in games. Lewis likened his abilities to a pitcher having not only a good fastball but a good curveball as well. When he has both it can be more unsettling for a batter, making him have to prepare for both, In addition, McCrary "has the strength of a much bigger man", said Marvin Lewis.   

This would help in his play versus the run. He would do that by using that leverage to his advantage. He'd built himself to about 267 pounds (maybe even a bit more early in seasons), but still giving up 50 or more pounds to left tackles. And he'd get lower and use his legs to stop run blocks and over time that will wear out joints and cause injury. He said that was his "only choice" since he was giving up so much in weight versus larger men. But the price was heavy—over his time with the Ravens he had five knee surgeries and then hurt the knee again in 2002.

In 1997 McCrary was a Pro Bowl alternate and made 69 tackles with 10 for losses plus 9 sacks and in 1998 he was even better. 

Of course, it is sacrilege to think that anyone but Reggie White should have been the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 1998, but we will, and did, go there. Perhaps McCrary should not have been the guy, maybe Junior Seau or Ty Law would be better choices than McCrary but McCrary would be right there with them.

But considering Seau had 15.5 run/pass stuffs (tackles behind the line of scrimmage other than sacks), McCrary had 13.0. Reggie White had 16 sacks (second in the NFL) McCrary had 14.5. McCrary had 27.5 total plays behind the line of scrimmage—most in the NFL for a very good defense. 

However, back then tackles for loss in the run game were not much of a consideration, Reggie White had just three to go with his 16 sacks, so guys like McCrary would have gotten much notice because of them. It's just fun to look back and play "what if" with stats known now that were not known then and surmise what may have happened with awards with those newer-type stats.

Regardless, McCrary was an All-Pro in 1998 (not consensus) and a Pro Bowler. He also made some of the non-major All-Pro teams like Paul Zimmerman's Sports Illustrated  All-Pro Teaam and the one chosen by Fox Sports. Those "in the know" liked McCrary's game a lot.

He was a Pro Bowler again in 1999 and after a two-day walkout in early September the Ravens rewarded him a five-year extension worth between $38 million and $42 million with a $12.25 million signing bonus—of course, he never the money on the back end of the contract, falling two years short of fulfilling the length of it but it was a far cry from the $770,000 or so he made in his four seasons in Seattle.

In 2000 he won a ring on one of the best defenses ever. His personal numbers were down but teams threw so quickly it was hard for the Ravens to get to the quarterback (only 35 sacks) but they put a lot of pressure on passers and running the ball of them was next to impossible.

he was as good as any Raven defender in the 2000 playoffs, right up there with Ray Lewis recording 13 tackles and six sacks in the four postseason games that year. That includes the two sacks he had in Super Bowl XXXV—one was before and one was after he shattered a knuckle on his right index finger that required off-season surgery and had to be painful. It just sounds painful—a shattered knuckle.
But the knees began to have more and more problems. Over that span, McCrary was having them drained regularly and taking cortisone shots multiple times a year, especially in 1999 and 2000. He had a shot before the Super Bowl game in Tampa. 

He wishes that he's retired earlier, he was in the game just to play, because he loved it even though his production was waning. In 2001 he was off to a good start but another knee injury hit him that season and he got to play just 10 games. In 2002 he only played games, never practiced, and again, hurt a knee. 

In 2003 he finally hung them up but after that season but was left in tremendous pain. He was taking all sorts of pain pills, and at 36 was all but crippled. At that young age, he needed two knee replacements. In fact, the knees prevented him from coaching in 2010 when the Ravens offered him a chance to coach the linebackers.

There was just too much swelling and icing to make it possible to be on his feet the way an NFL coach has to be. He said, ""Maybe one day, when I get over 45, and have the surgery, I'll try it again."

Yes, we are aware that in 2010 his wife asked for, was granted, and then withdrew the request for a protective order against McCrary—a judge ordered that he stay away from the couple's home. Clearly, we know that these things happen far too often in professional sports but we also know that being in pain and CTE and other issues can sometimes be a contributing factor and as far as we know there have been no other incidents since. In fairness, these things happen outside sports too often as well. It is a societal problem as well.

McCrary, of course, did very well in his career. At his peak, we think he was at a Defensive Player of the Year-level. Certainly an All-Pro or "blue" (scout term for a top) player. An admitted slow start to his career and a hobbled ending prevents any kind of Hall of Fame talk but he's still a player worthy of being remembered fondly. 

Bill Cowher once shouted to him during the middle of the game, "Michael McCrary I LOVE the way you play!". We did, too.

"McCrary is a special player," Coach Brian Billick said in a statement, "and his effort on every single play is legendary around the NFL. Then Ravens linebackers coach Mike Smith (who later became the head coach for the Falcons) told the Baltimore Sun, "Coaches have grabbed a tape of McCrary whenever they need to remind young players "this is how you play hard. "Every single play, he was going 100 miles to get the football".

Had he come out in 1983, rather than 1993, he would have been an 3-4 base outside linebacker who played defensive end on passing downs, like an Andre Tippett or a Kevin Greene or a Pat Swilling—that type of hybrid edge player. Possibly the same today like a T.J. Watt, perhaps.

But he'd easily be a top player now as an edge player in a 4-3 scheme as well, like one of the Bosa brothers or Myles Garrett, players like that. He would not have been drafted as high as they were because he was still just 235 pounds coming out of school, but if you watch his peak tapes of 1996-2001 he was the kind of guy people like to talk about now as Pro Bowl edge rusher. 

Sure, he liked to get sacks "when I get one I celebrate for a few seconds then I get greedy and want more" but McCrary was also was a "pressure guy". He was always close to the quarterback, hitting him, hurrying him, forcing bad throws. 

He built himself into a 265-270 pounder with good body strength, great takeoff speed, and excellent hands and feet that could, as Marvis Lewis said, convert to power or covert power to speed. 

And he never quit. Not in a game, not in practice—He was the first high-motor guy. Only the knees could stop him. 

As Howard Cosell said, "The kn-ee. Al-ways th-e kn-ee".

Career stats—


  1. He defined what it means to be a football player. You love the guys who play every down like its their last.

  2. I played with Mike in high school at Marshall High School. This a great article and tribute to his career. Our team went to the Virginia High School State Championship game, but unfortunately lost the championship game by 10 points against Courtland, if my memory is correct.

    Mike broke his arm during practice about mid-season and was out the rest of the season. It is sad to think that we we would have most assuredly won that VA State Championship in 1987, if he had been playing in the final game. In his place, we had to play a Sophomore who was very good, but not McCrary.

  3. Awesome player but this was first used on LT. Watch the 1986 giants among men video. Other d coordinators and coaches said this but I get your point