Andre Tippett: One of NFL's most feared linebackers
There are long and short versions of Andre Tippett’s story. The long version winds from his days in crime-ridden Newark, N.J., where he was cut from his high school football team as a gangly freshman.
It continues through junior college and a stellar three-year run at the University of Iowa, where he led the Hawkeyes to their first Rose Bowl appearance in 22 years as an All-American.
From there, he was taken in the NFL draft’s second round by the Patriots. Soon, Tippett was putting together a pro career that included leading his team to a Super Bowl and becoming one of the game’s most feared pass rushers.
The short version of his story starts with the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Tippett lined up on the left side of the defense at linebacker. The ball is snapped. A few quick moves and a few would-be blockers later, some poor quarterback is crumpled to the ground.
Both versions are impressive. Each features the same climax.
Andre Tippett is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He will be enshrined Saturday at Fawcett Stadium.
“There is nowhere else for me to go in professional football,” Tippett told reporters after hearing of his induction. “This has been my Super Bowl from an individual standpoint. I’ve reached the motherland.”
For most of 12 years, Tippett’s motherland was the quarterback pocket. A combination of speed, smarts and strength, Tippett thrived in New England’s 3-4 defense as an outside linebacker.
He was the kind of player who gave opponents nightmares.
“Guys had sleepless nights if they knew they had to go against Andre — or he just put them to sleep,” said Ed Khayat, a former NFL defensive lineman and a defensive assistant with New England during Tippett’s playing days.
Tippett, who ranks sixth on the all-time sack list among linebackers with 100, was selected to the NFL’s 1980s All-Decade Team. His two-year total of 35 sacks in the 1984-85 seasons remains a record for linebackers.
“A player like Andre sets the tone for the entire defense,” said Hall of Fame wide receiver Raymond Berry, the head coach in New England from 1984-89. “I can’t remember a championship defense that didn’t have a player who could get to the quarterback and keep constant pressure on him.”
Tippett played mostly special teams during his strike-shortened rookie season in 1982. He won a starting spot in 1983 and responded with 8 1⁄2 sacks.
Don’t waste his talent
Tippett’s career turned toward stardom when Berry came aboard midway through the 1984 season.
Berry kept defensive coordinator Rod Rust but brought on three of his own defensive assistants — Khayat, Jim Carr and the late Don Shinnick.
The new coaches immediately realized something important. Tippett, who was used all over the field by Rust, should be attacking the quarterback every chance he had.
“They were on Rod Rust’s butt to change his policy,” Berry said.
It wasn’t that Tippett didn’t do a good job in pass coverage or plugging holes in the run game. But using Tippett to cover a tight end was like the New York Yankees telling Alex Rodriguez to lay down a sacrifice bunt.
Tippett was the home run hitter every defense needed.
“I can promise you other teams were thrilled to death when they saw him in pass coverage,” Khayat said.
Eventually, the lobbying worked. Tippett was unleashed on quarterbacks.
If that hadn’t happened, “Then we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Berry said.
He just kept coming
Tippett didn’t disappoint once given his freedom. He set a Patriots single-season record of 18 1⁄2 sacks in 1984, a mark that stands today and led the NFL that season. He followed with 16 1⁄2 sacks in 1985 as he led the Patriots to their first Super Bowl appearance. They lost to the Bears, 46-10.
Tippett was named AFC Defensive Player of the Year and All-Pro first team in 1985 as he trailed only Lawrence Taylor in the hierarchy of outside linebackers of their time.
“Every quarterback in the league instinctively looks for Tippett out of the corner of his eye,” Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino told Inside Sports in 1986. “He just keeps coming and coming.”
Tippett wasn’t animated like Ray Lewis. He wasn’t a talker out of the Joey Porter mold.
“But brother, I’ll tell you, he was frightening,” Khayat said. “He intimidated them. Not by running his mouth, but by just wearing them out, by just whipping on them.”
Tippett’s high-rev motor made Berry think of an old Baltimore Colt teammate and fellow Hall of Famer.
“A lot of what Andre did reminded me of Gino Marchetti,” Berry said. “He was the guy on our Colts teams that Andre was on the Patriots. They weren’t that awesomely large. It wasn’t the size that set them apart. It was tremendous quickness and a competitive spirit.”
Speed wasn’t Tippett’s only physical blessing. He started studying karate while a kid in Newark, wanting a way to fight back on the rough-and-tumble streets. The martial arts soon became more than self-defense.
“You can really get into your soul and learn a lot about yourself,” Tippett told Inside Sports in 1986.
While karate served metaphysical purposes, the training honed an already gifted athlete, developing Tippett’s core strength, balance and flexibility. Tippett’s ability to use his hands was also enhanced, which prevented offensive linemen from getting their mitts on him.
“He used his hands as well as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Khayat said.
Tippett, a black belt who still trains at 48 years old, has never been the kind of person to look for a fight. But he also never backed down from one.
“There isn’t a game I’m not scared,” Tippett said in 1986. “These big linemen could really hurt me. That’s why I look at some games like a fight. I know I’m gonna have to fight, so I might as well get myself to that way of thinking. I gotta be violent.”
Banged and bruised
Injuries took their toll on Tippett as his career progressed. He injured his knee in the ninth game of the season in 1986. At the time his 9 1⁄2 sacks were second in the NFL. He came back in time for the Patriots’ final two regular season games and their 22-17 loss at Denver in the AFC Divisional playoffs.
That would be Tippett’s last postseason appearance.
He finished 1987 with 12 1⁄2 sacks, second only to Reggie White in the NFL, gaining his second All-Pro first-team selection.
The 1988 season saw him miss four games but still produce seven sacks and his fifth straight Pro Bowl appearance.
He missed all of 1989 with a shoulder injury. While he never got back to double-digit sack totals of earlier in his career, Tippett remained productive until his retirement after the 1993 season.
The accolades didn’t stop when his playing days did.
He was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Iowa Hall of Fame in 2007. Earlier this year, a panel of former NFL players and coaches voted him onto Pro Football Weekly’s all-time 3-4 defensive team, joining Taylor, Harry Carson, Randy Gradishar, Howie Long, Lee Roy Selmon and Curley Culp.
Setting the standard
Khayat spent 35 years playing and coaching in the NFL. Like most who know Tippett, he holds him in high regard as a player and a person.
“I was blessed to be around a lot of great players,” Khayat said, “and Andre really was special among that group.”
Tippett uses the words “sacred” and “hallowed” to describe Canton’s Hall. He was voted in after being a finalist in 2007.
Getting his bust was a thought in the back of his mind throughout his career.
“I think what you try to do is emulate the great guys that have played the game. ... You try to emulate them as close as you can from a what-you-do-on-the-field standpoint,” he said.
“And before you know it, you’ve set a new standard, and you try to follow suit by what everybody else has done.”