DeMarcus Ware is legend in the making

IRVING, Texas -- People paint in shades of great when evaluating DeMarcus Ware.

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick paid Ware what he considered the ultimate compliment earlier this season, comparing him to Hall of Fame outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Even that wasn't high enough praise for Rob Ryan, who couldn't think of anyone worthy of comparison to Ware, although the hyperbole-prone Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator noted that he hadn't seen all the Superman movies.

When a man performs like Ware, it's only natural to try to put him in historical perspective. He's on pace to become the first pass-rusher with a pair of official 20-sack seasons. He can become the first man to claim three NFL sacks titles since the league started recognizing that stat in 1982.

Forget about all the other franchises for a moment. Let's focus just on America's Team. Where does Ware fit among Dallas' defensive legends?

"If he finishes his career as well as I think he will," Hall of Famer Bob Lilly said, "he may be in a class of his own."

There's no better place to begin the debate than with the opinion of the man known as Mr. Cowboy. After all, Lilly has been recognized as the best defensive player ever to wear the star essentially since the Cowboys used the first draft pick in franchise history on the defensive lineman from TCU.

For years, fellow Hall of Fame defensive tackle Randy White has been the other player in the conversation, and nine-time Pro Bowler White considers 11-time Pro Bowler Lilly the standard.

For now, at least.

"DeMarcus is still making his mark," White said. "He's been a great player for the Cowboys, and I still think he's getting better. He's still got a long way to go in his career."

White is wowed by the speed and acceleration of the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Ware, who is well on his way to his sixth Pro Bowl trip at the age of 29.

Lilly laughs in amazement while talking about how a man who moves as fast as Ware can be such a physically overpowering player, too.

"I watch him stand up 320-pound tackles and drive them back," Lilly said. "Once he does that a few times, those guys don't know whether to brace themselves or to try to keep him from going around them. He's got strength, agility, speed, toughness, durability. You just don't see a guy his size who can do all of those things.

"He's just got everything."

Well, everything but a Super Bowl ring.

The lack of a title -- or, really, any significant playoff success -- is the lone thing that could be held against Ware in comparisons to other legends at this point. Ware has plenty of prime years left to chase that championship.

That's Ware's primary goal, but his legendary predecessors don't believe that Ware's legacy will be affected if the Cowboys fall short of adding a sixth Lombardi Trophy during his career.

"His play on its own would merit him receiving the recognition that he deserves," said White, a Super Bowl co-MVP in his third season. "Being on the big stage like that would be nice, but his play stands by itself. He's been one of the best at his position for quite a few years, and that's the mark of greatness. That would be kind of like icing on a cake."

Added Lilly, who waited 11 seasons before finally winning a title: "As far as Hall of Fame or any honors or recognition as one of the all-time greats, I don't think he needs that [championship]. He's already establishing that."

Ware, who could surpass Harvey Martin's franchise record of 114 career sacks next season, isn't worried about his place in the franchise's hierarchy of defensive legends at this point.

"It's like right now you're writing a poem and you hope somebody reads it and likes what you wrote," Ware said. "I'm just going to keep writing right now."

Lilly and White are enjoying each line from the legend in the making.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.