HERNDON, Va. -- "I wouldn't say I was scared," Ron Middleton said. "But I was a wide-eyed kid, fresh out of college, a free agent, not even drafted . . . and there he was."
So it won't be a new experience Sunday when veteran Middletolines up at tight end for the Washington Redskins and confronts the New York Giants' No. 56. Ron Middleton has looked Lawrence Taylor in the eye before.
He will be prepared.
"I will be prepared to give him a lot of respect," Middleton said"The same as I did then. A 'harrowing' experience? Yeah, I guess it was."
There will be 44 other numbers on blue jerseys in the twilight aRFK Sunday (4 p.m., Channel 11) in the game that can make or break the Redskins' season. There is a supportable thesis that the Skins never really recovered from their exquisitely cruel defeat by the Giants in last year's opener at RFK.
So the Redskins keep telling themselves and each other thathere are more Giants to beat than Lawrence Taylor.
"Carl Banks," Middleton reminded himself, pulling the Giantsother world-class linebacker from his file of rookie memories. "Now, there's a stud. A flat-out stud."
Tackle Jim Lachey, who has had some success against Tayloand doesn't want that fact noised around, grouped the Giants' defensive menaces: "You're lining up against the Taylors, the [Leonard] Marshalls, the Bankses . . ."
He could have gone on: the Pepper Johnsons, the StevDeOssies, and if any of them gets tired, the Gary Reasonses. They are parts of a defensive whole that has already had a streak this year of 163 minutes, 18 seconds without allowing a touchdown.
But it always comes back to LT, who is as inevitable iconversation as he is on the field. The way he free-lances around, he isn't always there. "But you've got to know where he is," Lachey said. "All the time."
"You have to give him extra consideration," said backup quarterback Gary Hogeboom, who faced Taylor and his friends twice last year with Phoenix-class pass-blocking in front if him. "You'd be foolish not to."
In one game the Giants intercepted Hogeboom four times ansacked him five times. Of all those depredations only one sack was by LT. That supports a case Redskins coach Joe Gibbs has been trying to make all week: that Taylor's menace cannot be expressed in statistics.
Gibbs was annoyed -- nay, alarmed -- by the publication of simplistic analysis of the Giants' 20-17 victory over Washington last October. It credited Taylor with only one tackle, one assist, one "defensed" pass and one quarterback "hurry." It concluded that the Redskins did and could "handle" LT.
Asked yesterday how he "stuffed" Taylor on five of six playsLachey recoiled at the word.
Dismayed to think to what extra-cosmic level of endeavor Taylomight betake himself if he were told he'd been "handled," Gibbs strove to explain that the analyst had reckoned without the dynamics of LT's presence.
The attention paid to Taylor in his zone makes it possible at altimes for other Giants to do effective things in other zones, Gibbs pointed out.
"Lawrence Taylor, single-handed, kept us out of the playoffs lasyear," Gibbs said. "He doesn't have the stats because everybody tries to run [their plays] away from him."
One of the plays in that analyzed game, defensive line coacVern Torgeson pointed out, demonstrated the most impressive aspect of his play. That one tackle came in pursuit of a play run to the other side of the field. Earnest Byner had made an 8-yard gain when LT overtook him.
"Everybody knows he has the speed," Torgeson said, "and huses it. He goes as fast as he can all the time, never gives up."
Torgeson was an NFL lineman in the 1950s, playing for twchampionship Detroit teams, then for losers in Washington. There were giants on the earth in those days -- Joe Schmidt, Bill George and Chuck Bednarik were Hall of Fame linebackers -- but they can't be compared with current players, Torgy said: "The game has changed too much." In the modern game there are players "like" Taylor, Torgeson said. "Pat Swilling of the Saints, Cornelius Bennett [of Buffalo]. But they're not in his class."
"I've been in the league 19 years," said Redskins linebackecoach/defensive coordinator Larry Peccatiello, "and I think LT may be the best defensive player who ever played the game. But I don't think it's correct to compare him to linebackers.
"Taylor lines up on most plays as a defensive end. He takes stance where Dexter Manley used to. He's great, but you can't call him a linebacker."
There is a toughness and an attitude that make Taylor thcomplete menace. Giants coach Bill Parcells was criticized (and accepted the criticism) for having LT play the final minutes of a 20-3 victory over Miami three weeks ago. The Giants' most valuable property pulled a hamstring on the last play and hobbled off.
Against the Cowboys the following week, Taylor played the entire game. "He said he didn't want to come out," Parcells said, "so we said, 'OK, stay in.' " That's the toughness.
"I didn't play that well," Taylor said after the game, "and my lestill hurt.
"But I control whether I play or not. I'm not going to allow thmedia to dictate when I play and when I don't. The fans don't take a vote on this. If I get hurt, it's up to me and nobody else."
That's the attitude.
Ron Middleton got an idea of it after that first preseason gamhe played for Atlanta in 1986. The Giants stayed at the Falcons' training site in Suwanee, Ga., and practiced with them for a few days.
"We did the 'pride' drill," Middleton recalled. That is thone-on-one exercise wherein a pass rusher and a blocker go up against each other until one yields -- or neither yields.
"I was matched up against LT one time," Middleton said. "Whewe came together he looked at me and said, 'Who is this?' "
That's the attitude.