When the debates begin about the NFL's best all-time defense, two teams generally wind up in some sort of tie — the Pittsburgh Steelers' "Steel Curtain" defenses of the 1970s (the best version may have been on the 1976 team; that team pitched five shutouts in a 14-game season) and the 46 defense of the 1985 Chicago Bears. Buddy Ryan's schemes revolved around a series of confusing, confounding, and suffocating pressure packages, and defensive end Richard Dent was at the epicenter of it all.
1985 was Dent's best year in a victory sense — his Bears beat the living daylights out of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX and he was named the game's MVP — but Dent had a string of great years throughout his 15-year career with the Bears, Philadelphia Eagles, Indianapolis Colts, and San Francisco 49ers. He actually topped 1985's 17-sack total with 17.5 in 1984, and racked up at least 10 sacks every year from 1984 through 1988. As you'll soon discover, he was also pretty impressive in coverage for a man his size — in addition to his 137.5 career sacks, Dent also picked off eight passes, including two in the Super Bowl season and three in 1990.
Like all great defensive players, Dent's value had to be seen on tape and judged by his opponents as much as it showed up in the stat sheets. All-time great running back Marcus Allen told me that when he played against Dent, it completely changed his role and his game.
"Richard was the one guy who, when I played against him and if our left tackle wasn't playing well, I was relegated to a blocking back, assisting him, so Richard wouldn't wreak havoc the entire game," Allen said. "He basically took me out of the passing game — you either had to slide to him or stay in to help the left tackle. He was so explosive, and he had the ability to stop the run. He was a great player."
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who spent 1985 through 1989 as the Minnesota Vikings' defensive backs coach, was relegated to sideline duty while Dent and the rest of that Bears defense demolished Minnesota's quarterbacks twice a year in a series of furious NFC Central battles. "We played against those guys when I was with the Vikings in their heyday and he was a phenomenal player on a phenomenal team," Carroll said. "Nobody just roared up the field like Richard did. He was famous for it, just running right around offensive tackles. He was a great player."
Greg Cosell, who's worked at NFL Films since 1979 and served as the Executive Producer for ESPN's NFL Matchup show since 1984, saw what Dent did form an analytical standpoint; he told me that there may not have been a comparable player to Richard Dent before or since.
"In speaking to quarterbacks and other offensive players of that era, almost to a man, they would mention Richard Dent as the most important player on the Bears' defense," Cosell said. "That was the whole point of the reduced Bear front. He was sort of a wide-9 defensive end on the weak side. And if he could not rush the passer and beat offensive tackles one-on-one, which the defense was designed to do, the defense wouldn't work. So, you could easily make the argument that he was the most important player on that defense. I've had quarterbacks tell me that the two best players on that defense were Dent and Wilber Marshall.
For those who didn't see him, is there a modern equivalent? "Oh, boy … I'm not sure there's a Richard Dent right now. He was not a small man. Most of the pass-rushers now, because the game has changed, are really hybrid defensive ends/linebackers. He was 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, and he always looked bigger than that. With the DeMarcus Ware-style pass rushers … I just don't know if there's someone like that today. Pure defensive end pass rushers; guys who never stand up [at the line]? Maybe Julius Peppers would come to mind. I think that Dent's a much better player than a Jared Allen, though he might be another guy who somewhat comes to mind. "
Could he stop the run? "Yeah, and the other thing he did a lot was to peel off and cover running backs, depending on their blitz packages. He was a very athletic guy."
Athletic, ruthlessly effective, and the point man on what may have been the NFL's greatest all-time defense. That's why Richard Dent is going into the Hall of Fame this weekend.