Chris Doleman's pass rushing skill prepared him for NFL greatness
Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chris Doleman (56) will enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame next weekend with 150 sacks, the fourth most in NFL history.
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Chris Doleman believes there is an art to pressuring the quarterback, but he almost didn't get the opportunity to prove he was a master of it.
That's because Doleman, who played for Pitt during some of the Panthers' glory years in the early 1980s, spent most of his first two seasons in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense and had only 1 1/2 sacks through 29 career games.
The Vikings were desperate for pass rush help late in the 1986 season. Assistant coaches Floyd Peters and Paul Wiggin approached Doleman about the possibility of moving to end in a 4-3 defense.
"They wanted to know if I thought I could rush the passer from the end spot, with my [hand on the ground]," Doleman said. "I told them, 'That's what I've wanted to do for two years.' "
Doleman was switched to end for the final three games that season and showed glimpses of his pass rushing ability by recording two sacks.
He gained 20 pounds in the next offseason, became a full-time defensive end and the rest is history.
Doleman's career will be celebrated Saturday when he is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. This humble star is not certain he's comfortable with the honor.
"I really don't know how to feel about being a Hall of Famer," Doleman said. "I mean the Hall of Fame is a great honor, it puts you in a different category as a player, but I'm not sure right now -- even a few days away from the ceremony -- if it has truly hit me."
Doleman started 213 of the 232 NFL games he played over a 15-year career (1985-99) with three teams. He is fourth in NFL history with 150 1/2 career sacks. He has the third-highest single-season sack mark with 21 (1989), and had 44 career forced fumbles and 8 career interceptions.
He was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, recorded double-digit sack totals in eight different seasons, was first-team All Pro three times and was named to the 1990's All Decade Team.
Doleman was productive in his first two seasons as a linebacker -- he was third on the team in tackles with 113 as a rookie -- but he was being asked to do so many things he never got a chance to develop into a pass rusher.
"They'd have me dropping in coverages, covering tight ends, chasing down running backs and maybe -- like, two or three times a game -- I'd get a chance to rush the passer," Doleman said. "Then they'd wonder why I didn't get any sacks. It doesn't work like that. The pass rush takes time to develop, there is a feeling-out process in each game, you need multiple looks at a guard or a tackle to get an idea of what he is capable of and what he is going to do.
"It is like a pitcher in baseball -- they don't tell a guy to go up to the mound and throw fastballs down the middle to the first few hitters they face because if they did, major league hitters would hit the ball out of the ballpark. Starting pitchers need to feel out the hitters, figure what is working and go with it.
"That's the same thing with the pass rush. You need to figure out what will work. Some guys you may bull rush, some you may speed rush, some you may need some different techniques."
It wasn't until he moved to defensive end full time in 1987 that he was able to show his ability as a pass rusher. That year Doleman recorded 11 sacks and six forced fumbles.
As evidenced by the 44 forced fumbles, Doleman was excellent at making sacks hurt an opponent twice as much by stripping the football from the quarterback's hands.
Wiggin recently said that talent separated Doleman from the other great pass rushers of his time -- Bruce Smith, Derrick Thomas and Reggie White.
"Chris' sack numbers are just a part of it," Wiggin told Vikings.com. " Even more impressive, he had what we referred to as a 'hat trick,' which was the sack, the strip of the ball and the recovery of the fumble; probably more so than anybody in football, including Reggie White. ...
"He had incredible balance and body control to be able to stay on his feet and arch himself back into the quarterback, which was how he was able to create so many fumbles and big plays."
Doleman, who, at 6 feet 5, weighed 290 pounds for most of his career, had all of the physical tools plus a work ethic that may have pushed him beyond his talent.
When Doleman came to Pitt in 1981, joining a roster that was full of future NFL players. He was recruited by Jackie Sherrill in the middle of the program's glorious run from 1976-82.
"When I got to Pitt, the standard was extremely high, the bar was set high," Doleman said. "There were great players sitting on the bench; we had guys on our bench who'd have been stars elsewhere. It was a thing of where, I knew and everyone knew, you better work hard, you better play hard or you won't play."
He also knows now that when he left Pitt, he was more than ready to battle NFL offensive linemen because he spent four years practicing against the likes of Jimbo Covert, Bill Fralic, Jim Sweeney and Emil Boures.
Doleman is from York, Pa., and played at William Penn High School as well as Valley Forge Military Academy before attending Pitt. Sherrill recruited him, but he played the bulk of his Pitt career under the late Foge Fazio. They were later reunited for a few years when Fazio coached for the Vikings.
Some of the Pitt teams Doleman played on were so talented he is sometimes overlooked.
"Coming out of Pitt he was a good lineman with the potential to be a great one, but a future Hall of Famer? Honestly, I wouldn't have said that," longtime Pitt broadcaster Bill Hillgrove said. "I mean, he was a lot like Russ Grimm in that coming out of Pitt, you wouldn't have considered them to be that kind of elite player, but their work ethic really helped them develop into that kind of player.
"The thing I will say is that Chris was a very docile, kind of a quiet kid and very humble kid when he was at Pitt. But something transformed in him when they blew the whistle and he became all kinds of unruly, in a good way."
The symbol of work ethic often is a lunch pail or a hard hat. In Doleman's case his work ethic was symbolized by a briefcase. He carried one to work every day.
Larry Fitzgerald Sr., who covered Doleman's career in Minnesota as a sports writer for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder and is a longtime friend, said the briefcase perfectly summarized Doleman's personality and approach.
"In all my years of going into locker rooms," said Fitzgerald, whose son Larry Jr. is a former Pitt star who plays for the Arizona Cardinals, "he is the only guy I have ever seen carrying a briefcase. But that was him -- it was all about business. He wasn't playing games. He was very serious about it.
"Chris was a first-round pick, he had a lot of expectations placed on him coming in and he was not the kind of guy who was ever going to be comfortable resting on what he accomplished, he always wanted to do more, work harder, improve himself."
Doleman laughed when asked about the briefcase, but he said the story shouldn't be that he carried one -- it should be that everybody else in the league should because the NFL is a profession. It is a business, and businessmen carry briefcases.
"You know, when you are 18- or 19-years-old and a student, you carry around book bags or gym bags, but once you grow into an adult, you have important stuff that needs to be taken care of," said Doleman, who now runs a charity auction business. "My thing was always -- and still is -- that I wanted to be prepared for every situation and I wanted to have all the tools I needed to be successful.
"And I wanted them all in the same place, where I could find them easily. I wanted to be able to take notes when I need to, read the playbook, so I wanted all of that stuff organized in my briefcase."
Doleman played on eight teams that recorded double-digit winning seasons and started 17 postseason games. The one hole in his resume is that he never played in a Super Bowl.
Doleman feels that enshrinement in the Hall of Fame means more than a Super Bowl ring.
"Football is a team sport and so many things have to happen beyond your control in order to win a Super Bowl that all any player can do is everything within his power to help his team win," Doleman said. "But we had some bad breaks and some bad luck and it never happened. But I know that there are a whole lot of guys who have Super Bowl rings who would trade them in a heartbeat for a Hall of Fame ring because the Hall of Fame is everything."
First Published August 1, 2012 12:00 am