Pro football’s top sack artists from 1960 through 1981
One of the most unfortunate statistical issues in pro football is that there are no official sack numbers before 1982. This obviously leaves a lot of the game’s greatest players out of the loop when it comes to determining their historical importance. Pre-1982 unofficial sack totals have been floating around for years, but Pro Football Reference has taken the giant step of putting those totals from 1960 through 1981 on their website. John Turney of Pro Football Journal has been renowned for his work in this regard (Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman pointed out Turney’s work a long time ago), and it’s Turney’s work, along with that of Nick Webster, both members of the Professional Football Researchers Association, that has cleared the gap.
This new information presents quite the alternate history of pro football. All-time greats like Deacon Jones, Jack Youngblood, Alan Page, and Jim Marshall finally get their due, and lesser-known names like Al “Bubba” Baker (who now holds the single-season sack record with 23.0 in 1978), Coy Bacon, and Elvin Bethea find their profiles where they always should have been — right up there with the all-timers.
How much does this mean to the players who have been overlooked? Al “Bubba” Baker, who is finally revealed at the NFL’s single-season sack leader with 23 in the 1978 season (his rookie season, to boot) said on the Around the NFL Podcast that it was quite an emotional experience.
“For some reason, and I’m not kidding you, without any prompting, tears just started running down my eyes,” Baker said, via Lions Wire’s Jeff Risdon. “And my wife was inside, I opened up the patio doors. And my wife, first thing she said was, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I said, nothing’s wrong and I said come look at this. And, you know, we hugged and then I lost about an hour and a half, two hours. My daughter called. It was really emotional for my family. I guess at 6-foot-8, 290 pounds, that doesn’t sound really tough, but, we were all crying.
“You know somebody tells you you’re a sack leader and what do you do, you start crying. And I guess it’s because none of us really sat around like some players and, ‘We want this and we want that.’ We hadn’t thought about it for at least, for at least, I’m not kidding you, 20 years.”
Baker, who led the league in sacks in both 1978 and 1980 (with 17.5), and now has 131.0 sacks shown for his NFL career, is one of so many whose excellence is now more obvious to football fans of any stripe.
With that in mind, here are the top sack artists in professional football from 1960 through 1981 — presenting a far clearer picture of those players who contributed the most to quarterback disruption before the numbers became official. There were 13 players who had at least 100 sacks before the sack became an official statistic, and here they are.
Deacon Jones: 173.5
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Los Angeles Rams, 1961-1971 San Diego Chargers, 1972-1973 Washington Redskins, 1974 Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1980 class. Selected with the 186th overall pick in the 14th round of the 1961 draft. 8-time Pro Bowler, 5-time All-Pro, Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1960s first team, NFL 100 All-Time Team. At 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, Jones was one of the first archetypes of the modern defensive end, with his size, strength, aggression, speed around the turn and ability to bull-rush blockers right out of the picture. The most infamous purveyor of the now-illegal head slap (“I didn’t invent it, but I perfected it,” he was fond of saying) and the inventor of the term “sack” for quarterback takedowns, Jones totaled 173.5 sacks in his career by unofficial count. To this day, only Bruce Smith and Reggie White have more career sacks. Jones led the NFL in sacks in 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, and 1969, and the only thing that kept him from doing so in six straight seasons was the fact that George Andre of the Cowboys tallied 18.5 sacks to Jones's 16.0 in 1966. Regardless, Jones' total of 115.5 sacks from 1964 through 1969, in 14-game seasons against generally run-heavy offenses, is one of the most incredible sustained periods of excellence, regardless of position, pro football has ever seen. Amazingly, Jones almost didn’t get his chance. South Carolina State revoked Jones’ scholarship after he participated in a civil rights protest, and Mississippi Valley State took him in. Were it not from a tip to the Rams from Bill Nunn, the managing editor of the Pittsburgh Courier who annually selected the All-Black College Football Team and later stocked the Steelers rosters of the 1970s with Hall of Fame HBCU talent, Jones may have slipped through the cracks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqcmuCcwCiU
Alan Page: 148.5
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Minnesota Vikings, 1967-1978 Chicago Bears, 1978-1981 Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1988 class. Selected with the 15th overall pick in the first round of the 1961 draft. 9-time Pro Bowler, 6-time All-Pro, Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1970s first team. Page now becomes the most prolific defensive tackle in NFL history as a sack artist with his 197 quarterback takedowns in the regular season, and eight more sacks in 19 playoff games and Super Bowls. As he played from 1967 through 1981, there were no sack totals for Page before. Not that we needed them to know how great Page was -- in 1971, he became the first defensive player in pro football history to win the Most Valuable Player award. and as great as ends Carl Eller and Jim Marshall were on those Purple People Eaters fronts, everybody knew that it was Page you had to handle if you had any hope of managing the Vikings' furious attacks. Ridiculously quick through any gap, with the strength and technique to slice through double-teams, Page set a standard for his position that stands to this day. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prJeAK__kqA
Carl Eller: 133.5
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Minnesota Vikings, 1964-1978 Seattle Seahawks, 1979 Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2004 class. Selected with the sixth overall pick in the first round of the 1964 NFL draft (Vikings), and with the fifth overall pick in the first round of the 1964 AFL draft (Bills). 6-time Pro Bowler, 5-time All-Pro, Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1970s first team. "It wasn't that he was just immense, or fast, or devastating," Fran Tarkenton said of Eller in 1979. "It was the fact that he was all three. When other guys rushed you, you could always duck around or get rid of the ball or pick a place to fall. But Eller didn't give you many options, because he just took away all the daylight. He was so big and so fierce coming at you, he blotted out the sun." A fair scouting report for the 6-foot-6, 247-pound Minnesota alum, who played at a time when 6-foot-6 and 247 pounds made you a Very Large Individual. Eller was a star right away, grabbing 7.5 sacks for the Vikings in his rookie season, and upticking that to an NFL-high 15.0 sacks in 1969. Eller also had 13 sacks in 1970, and posted double-digit sacks every season from 1973 through 1977, matching that 15.0 sack total in 1977 at age 35. Eller also had 10.5 sacks in 19 playoff games and Super Bowls, including a sack of Len Dawson in Super Bowl IV.
Coy Bacon: 130.5
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Los Angeles Rams, 1968-1972 San Diego Chargers, 1973-1975 Cincinnati Bengals, 1976-1977 Washington Redskins, 1978-1971 Undrafted free agent, 1967. 3-time Pro Bowler. It took a while for Lander McCoy Bacon to find his home in pro football, and it clearly wasn’t going to be in Texas. Bacon tried out for the Houston Oilers in 1964 but was released when it was discovered that he had not graduated from Jackson State. After a few cups of coffee in the Continental Football League, Bacon landed on the Cowboys’ practice squad in 1967. But he wasn’t a great fit, as he was a “pin your ears back” pass rusher, and Dallas’ flex defense demanded more discipline. Dallas traded him to the Rams in 1968 for a fifth-round pick, and Bacon saw some time on the “Fearsome Foursome” front due to injuries to defensive tackle Roger Brown (also on this list) and end Lamar Lundy’s retirement. Bacon played at a Pro Bowl level for the Rams in 1971 and 1972, kicking inside at times when Los Angeles featured a three-DE speed-rush package. But in 1973, the Rams traded Bacon and running back Bob Thomas to the Chargers for quarterback John Hadl. Among the reasons for the trade was that new head coach Chuck Knox thought Bacon didn’t play the run well enough, which is like trading in your Ferrari for a used pickup truck because your Ferrari won’t tow anything. But it was after Bacon was traded to the Bengals for receiver Charlie Joiner that he really went off at a historic level. In 1976, Bacon had 21.5 sacks, which would have been the NFL record until Mark Gastineau had 22 sacks in 1984. Bacon also had 15 sacks in 1979 and 11 in 1980 for Washington, at ages 37 and 38. From 1970 through 1979, only Cedrick Hardman (more on him in a minute) had more sacks (108.0) than Bacon's 107.5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3MON4vtEvO0
Jim Marshall: 130.5
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Cleveland Browns, 1960 Minnesota Vikings, 1961-1979 Selected with the 44th overall pick in the fourth round of the 1960 draft. 2-time Pro Bowler. The third member of the Vikings' "Purple People Eaters" near the top of this list, Marshall is one of the NFL's most impressive lifers -- he played in 270 straight games from 1961 through 1979, by far the most for any defensive player in pro football history. Alan Page, Ronde Barber, and London Fletcher are tied at 215. He played in the CFL before he was traded to the Browns in 1960, and then traded out of Cleveland to the expansion Vikings in 1961. Not a great deal for Paul Brown's team, but the new NFL team in Minneapolis enjoyed the benefits for a good long time. Marshall had double-digit sacks just four times in his 20 NFL seasons, and he never led the league, but he had a remarkable run of sustained excellence, and his omission from the Pro Football Hall of Fame remains a curiosity -- to put it kindly. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrY0kUVkRYY
Claude Humphrey: 130.0
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Atlanta Falcons, 1968-1978 Philadelphia Eagles, 1979-1981 Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2014 class. Selected with the third overall pick in the first round of the 1968 draft. 6-time Pro Bowler, 2-time All-Pro. 1968 Defensive Rookie of the Year. Humphrey had the dual misfortune of playing his prime years with a series of mostly poor Falcons teams — though he was a key part of the “Grits Blitz” defense that terrorized every opposing quarterback it faced in 1977 — and the fact that he retired the year before sack totals became official. He may be most famous for getting called for roughing the passer with the Eagles in Super Bowl XV, picking up the flag and throwing it at official Ben Dreith. Of course, that’s not why Humphrey eventually made the Hall of Fame — that would be his 130 sacks, including 11.5 in his rookie season and 9.5 in 1977, when the Falcons set an NFL record for fewest points allowed with 129. Humphrey also had one of the greatest "old guy" seasons for any edge defender in NFL history, racking up 15.5 sacks in the 1980 regular season and one more in the postseason at age 36. https://youtu.be/M7aTdhsSYk4?t=155
Jack Youngblood: 127.5
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Los Angeles Rams, 1971-1984 Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2001 class. Selected with the 20th overall pick in the first round of the 1971 draft. 7-time Pro Bowler, 5-time All-Pro, Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1970s first team. “I consider him a phenomenal football player. I’d have to give Youngblood the vote as the best defensive player I ever competed against.” Roger Staubach said that of Youngblood in his book, Time Enough to Win, and if that isn't enough of an endorsement, here's this from John Madden in Madden's book, One Knee Equals Two Feet:
As a pass rusher, he had a way of getting underneath the offensive tackle, forcing him to stand up almost straight. That way, Jack had all the leverage. Watching him on films, I was fascinated by how he did it. 'Watch this,' I would tell my defensive ends, ‘Watch how Youngblood gets under that tackle. They would try it, but they couldn’t do it. Of all our ends, Tony Cline (who, by the way, led the NFL with 17.5 sacks in his rookie year of 1970) came closest to doing it, but he couldn’t lean into that tackle the way Jack did, getting underneath the tackle’s shoulder pad and taking away his strength. Other good pass rushers used quick moves, or got an arm on the tackle’s shoulder and spun him, or whaapped the tackle with a head slap (before it was ruled illegal). But nobody else literally got underneath a tackle.”
(H/T to Pro Football Journal for those quotes). Youngblood certainly had a lot of whaapp, as Madden put it. He also had a lot of toughness, which he proved by playing in Super Bowl XIII with a broken leg. That 1979 season, which ended with the Rams losing to the Steelers, 31-19, was also Youngblood's crowning glory as a sack artist -- he had a league-leading 18.0 in the regular season, and one more in the playoffs, Youngblood also led the NFL in sacks in 1974 with 15.0, and from 1973 through 1976, nobody else in the league came close to Youngblood's 61.0 sacks -- Alan Page finished second with 47.0. In total, Youngblood added 8.5 sacks to his career total in 17 postseason games, and even late in his career when he transitioned to a 3-4 base defense, he was still bringing it -- Youngblood totaled 20.0 sacks in his last two NFL seasons of 1983 and 1984. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6_VqyinJ2Q
Cedrick Hardman: 122.5
San Francisco 49ers, 1970-1979 Oakland Raiders, 1980-1981 Selected with the ninth overall pick in the first round of the 1970 draft. 2-time Pro Bowler. Hardman hit the ground running for the 49ers in his rookie season of 1970 -- he had 8.5 sacks in just five starts, and he followed that up with a league-high 18.0 sacks in 1971. Hardman never really got the recognition he deserved on 49ers teams that couldn't get to the Super Bowl in the early 1970s, and were generally imploding in the pre-Bill Walsh mid-1970s, but when he went to the other side of the bay in 1980, it was just the right time, as the Raiders became the first wild-card team in NFL history to win a Super Bowl, and Hardman announced his presence with authority with 9.5 regular-season sacks and one more sack in the postseason. Hardman had 3.5 sacks in two different postseason games against the Cowboys -- the NFC Championship loss in the 1971 season, and the divisional round loss in 1972. From 1974 through 1978, only Dallas' Harvey Banks Martin (66.0) had more regular-season sacks than Hardman's 61.5, and Hardman had the most sacks of any player in the 1970s with 108.0, just ahead of Coy Bacon's 107.5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MGzxFaI-5Y
Jack Gregory: 106.0
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Cleveland Browns, 1967-1971 New York Giants, 1972-1978 Cleveland Browns, 1979 Selected with the 139th overall pick in the ninth round of the 1966 draft. 2-time Pro Bowler. Gregory wasn't a big deal coming out of college, as evidenced by the fact that he was selected in a round of the 1966 draft that doesn't exist anymore. Perhaps scouts weren't making it out to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Delta State back then. Also, Gregory was a tight end in college. In any event, once the Browns took him on, Gregory proved to be a real asset from his second season on. He put up 11 sacks and made the Pro Bowl in 1969, put up 15.5 sacks in 1970 and didn't, and in 1972, his first season with the Giants, he led the NFL with 18.5 sacks, and he very definitely did. The Giants traded Steve Holden and Greg Pruitt for Gregory and Freddie Summers. Gregory's best season with the G-Men was 1975, when he had 14 sacks. There isn't really any YouTube love for Gregory at this point, so if you'd like to know more, I highly recommend this John Turney article about Gregory's career -- especially how the Giants used him as a multi-gap "rover" early on, which is something most teams didn't do with their pass-rushers (at least, not nearly as often as they do now).
Elvin Bethea: 104.0
(AP Photo/Ed Kolenovsky, File)
Houston Oilers, 1968-1983 Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2003 class. Selected with the 77th overall pick in the third round of the 1961 draft. 8-time Pro Bowler. One of the most dominant HBCU alumni in pro football history (North Carolina A&T), Bethea became a full-time starter in his second season with the Oilers, and that was all he need to scare the living daylights out of every quarterback Houston faced. He had 14.5 sacks in 1969 and 16.0 in 1973, which marked Bethea's final season in the Oilers' 4-3 base defense before Bum Phillips installed one of the first true 3-4 base defenses at the NFL level -- Chuck Fairbanks was working with something similar with the Patriots around the same time. Houston's front three of Bethea, endmate Robert Brazile, and nose tackle Curley Culp was as tough to deal with any in the league at that time, and Bethea showed his ability to adapt to the new concepts by amassing 14.5 sacks in 1976. Bethea's sack numbers started to decline in the later 1970s, but he was a key part of an Oilers team that presented the Steelers with some serious challenges to their dynastic run during that time. Bethea had seven sacks in eight postseason games, including two in the Oilers' 27-7 wild-card loss to the Raiders in 1980. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DvyRGL0mf_w
Harvey Martin: 104.0
Dallas Cowboys, 1973-1983 Selected with the 53rd overall pick in the third round of the 1973 draft. 4-time Pro Bowler, 1-time All-Pro, Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1970s first team, 1977 Defensive Player of the Year. 1977 was Martin's year -- he led the NFL with 20 sacks in the regular season (one of just nine players to have 20 or more sacks from 1960-1981), and three more in the postseason, including two in the Cowboys' 27-10 thumping of the Broncos in Super Bowl XII. Martin and defensive tackle Randy White were the game's co-MVPs, and Martin followed that season up with 14.5 regular-season sacks in 1978, and two more in a postseason that ended with Dallas losing Super Bowl XIII to the Steelers. From 1976 through 1978, Martin had the NFL's most sacks with 49.0 -- Coy Bacon finished second with 38.0. If we're using the Bill James "peak value" concept to discuss pass-rushers of this era, few had more of an impact than Martin during the middle of his career. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBtIgTgmN-w
Fred Dryer: 103.0
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New York Giants, 1969-1971 Los Angeles Rams, 1972-1981 Selected with the 13th overall pick in the first round of the 1961 draft. 1-time Pro Bowler.. Dryer is better-known for his acting career than his exploits on the field, which is unfortunate -- and probably would have been different had his sack totals been available before now. The San Diego State star had 20.5 sacks in his first two seasons with the Giants, and 29 in three seasons. The Giants traded Dryer to the Patriots in 1972, Dryer refused to report unless he got a new contract, and the Patriots then traded him to the Rams. Dryer got his long-term deal, and he also inherited a defensive line that already had Jack Youngblood, Coy Bacon, and Merlin Olsen. Not great for opposing quarterbacks. In 1973, Dryer became the only player in NFL history to record two safeties in the same game, and he had his second career double-sack season with 10. In 1974, Dryer tied with Youngblood for the league lead in sacks with 15.0, helping the Rams put together the NFL's best defense. Dryer had 12 more sacks in the 1975 regular season with one more in the postseason, and overall, he had four sacks in 14 postseason games. Not bad for an actor. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-VCpcYI4Fc
Alex Karras: 100.0
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Detroit Lions, 1958-1970 Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2020 class. Selected with the 10th overall pick in the first round of the 1959 draft. 4-time Pro Bowler, 3-time All-Pro, Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1960s first team. Speaking of "not bad for an actor," there's the case for Karras, who had a star turn in the greatest comedy ever made. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bctYe13iePI Not bad when you have Richard Pryor writing your lines, and Mel Brooks overseeing everything. Karras was also a star in the NFL, of course -- we don't have his sack totals for 1958 and 1959, but only Jim Katcavage, Deacon Jones, and Bill Glass had more sacks than Karras' 59.5 from 1960-1965, and that's with the gambling suspension Karras served in 1963 that cost him the entire season. Only Alan Page has more sacks on this list among defensive tackles, and Karras was a key part of the Lions defenses that hold the record for sacks in consecutive games with 76. The current Steelers have a sack in 73 straight games, so watch out for that. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgiHCJInb18