The last day of the NFL regular season is always a day for records and the marking of specific accomplishments. Sadly, one record that looked as if it could have been broken was not — and by the slimmest (and now most controversial) of margins.
When Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen picked up his final solo sack in the third quarter of a 17-13 loss to the Chicago Bears, he was left with 3 ½ sacks for the game and 22 on the nose for the season. The loss put the Vikings at 3-13 for the season, but Allen's performances through the 2011 campaign have been an absolute revelation. Known for years as one of the game's best sack artists, Allen upped his game this season despite playing in front of a pass defense that has been one of the league's worst.
Of course, that 22-sack total put him just half a sack behind Michael Strahan of the New York Giants for the single-season record. That record was set in 2001 and Strahan's final sack of the season seemed to come against a more than willing Brett Favre in the last game of the regular season against the Green Bay Packers. Allen will simply have to share second place with Mark Gastineau of the New York Jets, who matched the 22.0 mark in 1984. Dallas' DeMarcus Ware had the single-season mark among active players with 20.0 in 2008.
"After I got the last sack, the next thing I know, they started bringing two tight ends and a tackle," Allen told ESPN Twin Cities of the Bears' game plan that prevented him from getting to quarterback Josh McCown over the game's final 20 minutes. "I just knew if we could get a lead and get them in the 2-minute drill, we could get after it."
But it wasn't to be. The Bears gave tackle J'Marcus Webb help at the line and started throwing more dink passes to get the ball out quickly — and McCown out of Allen's strike zone.
"It's like being runner-up at the prom," Allen said. "The crown just doesn't mean as much."
In a more historical light, Allen did see the value of his accomplishments — but being as hyper-competitive as he is, he was just as able to see the sacks he just missed through the season. After the game, Allen recalled three specific examples — one in October against the Arizona Cardinals, one against the Green Bay Packers in November, and the last against the Detroit Lions in December.
"Each year, you are going to have a bunch of almosts, though," said Allen.
Allen's an unusual feat at a position in which the age curve looks like a straight downward like for the most part. The number of speed rushers at their peak in their thirties is a very small one, and Allen turned 29 in April. He looked a bit slower in 2010, dropping his sack total to 11.0 after registering at least 14.5 in each of the three previous seasons.
"Twenty sacks is ridiculous," Allen said. "To get over 10 is a great season. It's an accomplishment, [considering] the way these quarterbacks get rid of the ball so fast and the blocking we see every week."
Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier, in his first full season as the team's head coach, had no question about the fact that Allen's season of a triumph of pure effort in a nuclear scale.
"He was so committed to playing at a high level, and then to come out and play the way he played every single week -- facing double teams, triple teams — [it's] just a testament to who he is as a person, as a player. To have the kind of year he had and facing the protections that he faced [is] incredible. Just a great feat by Jared."
Allen may have fallen short of the record, but he has nothing whatsoever to regret.