TAMPA, Fla. -- Lawrence Taylor sounded like a man ready to pass the torch to a younger, stronger man yesterday.
In another four days, we'll see if Bruce Smith accepts it . . . or drops it.
Taylor, the NFL's most dominating defensive player for the last decade, conceded the obvious as Super Bowl XXV hysteria officially got under way at Tampa Stadium. The New York Giants' perennial All-Pro linebacker doesn't get to the quarterback as quickly or as often as he once did. And he doesn't make as many gigantic plays as he used to.
But yesterday, speaking with pride about a fabled career, L.T. called himself the Mercedes of linebackers and suggested that he was, at the age of 31, still better than the vast majority of players at his position.
"I may not be the greatest linebacker in the league," he said, "but I'm still better than 90 percent of them."
The question of Taylor's greatness surfaced this season as he accepted a more disciplined and less spectacular role in the Giants' defensive scheme. Once the inspiration of that defense, Taylor seemed more to be an equal partner this season. Big plays came, but with diminishing regularity.
Then, last month, Smith, a Pro Bowl defensive end for the Buffalo Bills, made the bold pronouncement that he had surpassed Taylor as the game's brightest defensive light.
Yesterday Taylor agreed with Smith. There was no war of words, but there was a word of warning.
"Right now he is, he is the best [defensive] player in the league," Taylor said. "And I think he's going to get better.
"But five years from now, somebody else will call himself the best in the league. It's all relevant.
"I have nothing against Bruce Smith. He is the greatest defensive player playing. But he will know that anybody can be stopped in this league. Not one man is so dominating that he can't be stopped."
Smith already may have gotten the message. Because since making his pitch for recognition, Smith has gone sackless in five games, two of them playoff games, leaving him with 19 for the season. And even if he was recently named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, he was quick to acknowledge the legacy left at his doorstep.
"No doubt L.T. has been the best defensive player in the league the last 10 years," Smith said. "L.T. is going to the Hall of Fame, I'm not.
"He's a fantastic player. I've watched him so much, and I still watch him. I've learned a lot about being a better player by watching him.
"Whether I show I'm the best defensive player in the league or not is irrelevant to me right now. I just want to win this football game. That's the most important thing to me right now."
Winning Sunday's Super Bowl, with Taylor on the same field, may be the only real coronation Smith can get.
To the Giants, any such talk is premature, though.
"To me, L.T. hasn't slowed down," said linebacker Pepper Johnson. "He turns it on and off when he wants. Back then, he kept the fire on constantly. Don't go for that mess Lawrence is saying about slowing down."
Indeed, in what seemed a strangely melancholy interview, Taylor seemed to be saying just that.
"I know my limitations, I know people expect me to play like I'm 22," he said. "I'm not 22 anymore. I'm just trying to do the best I can at this stage of my career.
"I've been a good player in the league for 10 years. Now I'm trying to go out respectfully.
"I know I can't play the game forever. I've got a couple of years left at best. When I do leave, it won't be a situation where they come and ask me to go. I'll leave on my own terms."
Then, Taylor reached for that pride, the pride of 10 magnificent years at the top of his profession.
"I consider myself a Mercedes," he said, almost wistfully. "Even a Mercedes gets a little old, and you've got to trade it in."