Dr. Z's List of Top 10 All-Time Pass Rushers Includes 4 Rams (and 1 Clan member?)
By Paul Zimmerman
The following story originally appeared in the Aug. 28, 2000 issue of Sports Illustrated.
NFL Films has a piece on former Eagles defensive end Norm (Wild Man) Willey in which he claims he had 17 sacks in a game. The feature is very entertaining, with Willey maintaining throughout that people didn't believe him when he told them about his exploits that day. Count me as one of those nonbelievers, because I happened to be at that game: Philadelphia Eagles 14, New York Giants 10, Polo Grounds, Oct. 26, 1952.
Philadelphia had defensive ends Willey and Pete Pihos "crashing," as rushing the passer was called then, as opposed to the old "boxing" strategy, or playing the run first. The Giants tried to block the ends with their guards, who couldn't get outside in time. It was frightening to watch. My chart has New York quarterbacks Charley Conerly and Freddie (Needle) Benners going down 14 times, with Willey collecting eight of the sacks, which weren't so named until years later, and Pihos getting six. Willey's eight probably would have been a record (as would the Eagles' 14), except the NFL didn't recognize individual sack totals until 30 years later. That's sad because many of the great pass rushers before the '80s will never get their due.
Willey, Pihos, Doug Atkins, Gino Marchetti -- their numbers are lost. Aside from the players, no one has been more discouraged about this than John Turney, a 36-year-old gift shop owner from Alamogordo, N.Mex., who has pored over play-by-play charts and viewed hundreds of reels of film in an attempt to establish accurate totals for as many old-timers as he can. His research goes back to around 1960. "Before that, there are only a few bits and pieces of information," he says.
After painstakingly checking and rechecking his data, he has come up with sack numbers for pass rushers in the '60s and '70s. The totals are relative because teams play more games now than they did years ago, and many more passes are thrown per game. But the old-time pass rushers were allowed to use techniques like the head slap, which was banned in 1977, and offensive linemen couldn't hold the way they can now. Aided by Turney's numbers, I've come up with my top 10 list of the alltime greatest sackers.
1. REGGIE WHITE
EAGLES, PACKERS, PANTHERS
A tough choice over Deacon Jones, but if White, 38, could have used the head slap, as Jones did, his numbers would be out of sight. He plays the run, he rushes the passer, and in his early days with the Eagles, he occasionally lined up over the ball. His game is complete. He is the heaviest man on my list, topping out at 305 pounds, and his moves are built on power. He's amazingly strong.
In his early years White would use an outside speed rush, but as he has gotten older and bigger, he has relied more on his "hump" technique, which is basically a clubbing, inside power move. His repertoire doesn't contain a lot of moves - the arm over, swim and spinner -- but with the strength he possesses he doesn't need many. When he was in his prime, he could split a double team with sheer explosion, and he would take delight in carrying his man into the backfield and dumping him into the passer.
2. DEACON JONES
RAMS, CHARGERS, REDSKINS
For a while he was Turney's single-season-record holder, with 26 sacks in 1967 and another 24 in '68. Further scrutiny of play-by-play sheets and films, though, showed that Rams coach George Allen credited a shared sack as a solo for each sacker, so Jones's totals in those years dropped to 21 and 22, respectively. The latter would have tied Mark Gastineau's official record for the most sacks in a season. "Deacon was furious," Turney says of the sacks that were taken from him. "He still doesn't believe it."
Jones could split helmets with his head slap, and his outside speed rush was devastating. He probably ranks with former Charger and 49er Fred Dean and the Titans' Jevon Kearse as the fastest defensive ends of all time. Plus, Jones was relentless; he never gave up. He collected sacks on his hands and knees. One Jones quote sticks with me: "We're like a bunch of animals, kicking and clawing and scratching at each other."
3. LAWRENCE TAYLOR
He revolutionized the outside linebacker spot, playing a rush linebacker who at times moved to end in a four-man front. He was too quick for tackles who tried to block him and too strong for running backs who had to pick him up when he blitzed. Frustrated opponents tried combination blocks, which meant assigning a bunch of guys to him and hoping for the best. The unexpected part of Taylor's game, and the move he took the most pride in, was the power rush, which always shocked people playing against him for the first time. A 245-pound linebacker isn't supposed to throw 300-pounders aside.
I saw him make the greatest play I've ever seen by a defensive player, against the Redskins at Giants Stadium in November 1983. LT blitzed, and Joe Jacoby, Washington's 300-pound All-Pro left tackle, tried to pick him up. Taylor grabbed him by the pads and threw him, flushing quarterback Joe Theismann out of the pocket. George Starke, the right tackle, peeled back to throw a block, but Taylor knocked him to the ground without breaking stride. Then Taylor caught Theismann 15 yards downfield. That's 560 pounds of linemen he disposed of and a quarterback with 4.6 speed he ran down.
4. JACK YOUNGBLOOD
Everyone knows about his pain threshold. In the Rams' Super Bowl year of 1979 he played most of the playoffs with a fractured left fibula. He missed one game in a 14-year career. He played the power side even though he was undersized at 242 pounds and in coach Ray Malavasi's system he had to play head-up on the tackle a lot and stop the run first. Yet he ranks on Turney's list as the fifth-leading sacker, mainly thanks to as complete an assortment of moves as any defensive end ever had. His game was built on speed, leverage and angles.
When coach John Robinson brought in the 3-4 defense, in 1983, Youngblood, who occasionally had been allowed the luxury of splitting wide for his rush on passing downs, was trapped inside. Offensive tackles were getting bigger and bigger, too. "It seems that they're all coming out rubber-stamped 6'6", 280," he said. Yet Youngblood collected a total of 20 sacks in his last two seasons.
5. BRUCE SMITH
His sack totals have been slipping recently, but for many years he and White were the NFL's premier pass rushers. In Buffalo, Smith played the right side, the sacking side, and his trademark move was a swift upfield rush followed by a burst inside. He was a master at setting up a lineman, then shocking him with a lightning spin, rip or swim move. A conditioning nut, he built his game on speed and endurance. At times the Bills played him inside, often over the nose, to capitalize on his quick-strike ability.
The giveback was his vulnerability to traps and draws, and it became a point of honor with him to improve his techniques. But we're talking about sackers here, and Smith, 37, has been one of the game's most feared rushers for more than a decade.
6. GINO MARCHETTI
DALLAS TEXANS, COLTS
In 1952, the year that Marchetti turned pro, a defensive lineman was expected to jolt his man with a forearm or a fist, obtain separation and then go for the ball. Marchetti played offensive tackle that season, and he says the experience changed his approach. "I realized that the hardest guy for me to block wasn't the guy who took me on straight up but the one who made me miss," he said. "So those were the techniques I worked on the next year when I became a defensive end."
Marchetti, who played in 10 Pro Bowls, developed a new pass-rush technique--grabbing and throwing--and relied on quick moves and footwork. "I've heard defensive players say, 'Hell, I didn't even get my uniform dirty playing against Marchetti,'" said Weeb Ewbank, Marchetti's coach with the Colts. "Well, he dirtied a lot of quarterbacks' uniforms."
7. MARK GASTINEAU
This selection will not sit well with a lot of folks. Opponents and teammates disliked him. His famous sack dance so infuriated Rams tackle Jackie Slater, one of the game's true gentlemen, that Slater went after him following one play. Bengals guard Max Montoya did a trap dance after Cincinnati ran for a touchdown over Gastineau, who'd been trap-blocked by Montoya. Gastineau's teammates on the Jets' famed Sack Exchange hated the idea that he took little interest in playing the run and often refused to run inside stunts.
In the three full seasons of 1981, '83 and '84 (the '82 season was strike-shortened, but Gastineau was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year after picking up six sacks in nine games) he averaged 20 1/3 sacks, including an NFL-record 22 in 1984. A pure outside rusher, he was practically unblockable. He relied on 4.56 speed, martial arts techniques and weight training devoted to the abdominal muscles, which he said gave him the ability to coordinate arm quickness with his speed.
8. KEVIN GREENE
RAMS, STEELERS, PANTHERS, *****
No one was more aware of his sack totals than Greene. In 1996, the year the Panthers reached the NFC title game, he told me he was worried about blurred vision caused by a concussion. He was 34. "Better think about retiring," I said. "Can't," Greene said. "Got to get LT's record for linebacker sacks." The next year, after Greene had vaulted over a blocker to make a sack, a Carolina p.r. man called down to the bench to congratulate him on getting the record. "Not yet," Greene said. "I need one more." Sure enough, the press box stats were wrong. He got the record in the next game.
He played many roles in his 15-year career: designated open-side rusher, an outside linebacker in a 4-3 and a 3-4, a stand-up defensive end. He preferred the outside move, but if he had to, he could turn on a ferocious power rush.
9. AL (BUBBA) BAKER
LIONS, CARDINALS, BROWNS, VIKINGS
He stood 6'6", weighed a lean 265 pounds and had played basketball at Colorado State. He would post up his man from his end spot, spin inside, spin outside, sometimes use a double spin. Occasionally he would fake the spin and then come in with a club and bull rush. He was a most confusing player to block.
Individual sacks were kept only by each team's p.r. department when Baker racked up 23 as a rookie in 1978, but for years the Lions and the Cardinals compared Baker's sack total with his games played in their releases. He lasted six seasons with sacks outnumbering games, 84 1/2 to 83, thought to be the best anyone had done until then. "First time I ever got a sack, it was no big deal to me," he said, "until I heard the way the crowd went wild. I thought, Damn, I've got to get me some more of those."
10. COY BACON
RAMS, CHARGERS, BENGALS, REDSKINS
He was 26 when he finally caught on with George Allen's Rams, in 1968. Bacon was big for a defensive end, 6'4", 270 pounds, and given to furious pass rushes when the mood seized him. When Chuck Knox took over as coach in 1973, assistant Tom Catlin mentioned that Bacon wouldn't play the run. "He won't what?" Knox said. Bacon was traded to San Diego, and after three seasons there was shipped to Cincinnati, where he got 21 1/2 sacks in 1976.
"He's a guy I hated playing against," said former Eagles tackle Stan Walters. "If he started well, he'd give you problems. Once we were beating them badly. At the end he screamed at me, 'You ain't nothing!' I said, 'Hey, fern brain, look at the scoreboard.'"
Re: Dr. Z's List of Top 10 All-Time Pass Rushers Includes 4 Rams (and 1 Clan member?)
Bruce Smith (199)
Reggie White (192 1/2)
Deacon Jones (173 1/2)
Kevin Greene (160)
Jack Youngblood (151 1/2)
Here's a list with numbers(I don't know the date this was posted). I didn't know how dominant ol' Jack Youngblood really was. I'm sad to say that I didn't really ever get to watch him play. Deacon too.