In the beginning, there was no such thing as a sack.
Tackling the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage was admirable, but not especially notable, no different really from throwing a running back for a loss. It necessitated nothing more than an “attaboy’’.
This was the Paleolithic era of the pass rusher. No eight-figure salaries, choreographed celebrations, or recognizable statistics. Hall of Fame defensive ends such as Andy Robustelli of the New York Giants , Gino Marchetti of the Baltimore Colts, and 6-foot-8-inch Doug Atkins of the Chicago Bears played the run first and chased the quarterback later in the 1950s. They were sack-masters before their penchant for pummeling the passer even had a four-letter epithet.
Every pass rusher owes a debt to David “Deacon’’ Jones. The patron saint of sacks, Jones was an eight-time Pro Bowl defensive end, a five-time All-Pro, and one of the meanest men to ever play in the NFL during his 14 seasons (1961-74) with the Los Angeles Rams, San Diego Chargers , and Washington Redskins . He wanted to hit the football-consuming public upside the head with his talent the way he did bewildered linemen with his signature head slap.
So, he coined a term for his quarterback carnage - sack - and changed the path of pass rushing.
“When I came into the game a lineman was just a lineman. You took him along because you had to fill a position. You had no notoriety and notoriety in this game causes you to make money,’’ said the 72-year-old Jones from his home in Anaheim Hills, Calif. “There was no way to identify what we did for a living.’’
Jones chose “sack’’ because he said it signified taking the offense, putting it in a bag, or sack, and smashing it with a baseball bat.
“Deacon, he is the godfather of it all. The guy that set the tone,’’ said Andre Tippett, a Hall of Fame outside linebacker and the Patriots’ all-time leader in sacks with 100.
Tippett had the good fortune of starting his career in 1982, the year the sack became an official NFL stat. Until that point, each team was responsible for tracking sacks.
“You can’t tell me all-time started in 1982,’’ said Jones, his voice rising in anger. “Is that fair? It’s not fair . . . There are guys that beat these guys, three to one.
“What makes me angry is all I’ve done in this league to elevate it, me and [ Green Bay Packers defensive end] Willie Davis, Gino Marchetti, Doug Atkins, these guys were fantastic defensive ends and all got high numbers. All played on great teams. You tell me just forget about them? That’s bull. How do you think these guys feel when somebody starts talking about an All-Pro with 11 sacks? I wouldn’t even ask for a raise with 11 sacks. These guys get $10 million with 15 sacks. My number starting out was 20. I can get 20 against anybody.’’
Jones didn’t even mention that he played during the era of the 14-game season. Marchetti and Atkins played 12-game seasons before the league moved to 14 in 1961. This is why comparing pass rushers from different eras is like art, subjective. It depends on which era and style you enjoy - abstract, impressionist, surrealist.
Just ask a man who has spent 18 years as a pass-rushing archeologist, uncovering sacks like ancient artifacts from a lost world, John Turney of the Pro Football Researchers Association.
The 47-year-old New Mexico resident has scrutinized the archives of NFL teams and viewed old game films to try to build a more accurate all-time sack register than the NFL’s, which has former Buffalo Bills defensive end Bruce Smith atop the list with 200. Turney said not every team kept or still has usable records from the 1950s and ’60s.
“Football is art. I like the numbers, I like counting things, but I like the art more,’’ said Turney. “The art of it is what intrigues me.’’
Some of the best sack artists predate the term itself.
Marchetti, whose 14-year career began in 1952, was one of the first players to employ hand fighting in getting to the quarterback. He honed his technique after spending his second year in the league protecting the passer as an offensive tackle. He was known for uncanny quickness off the snap, aided in part by the fact he lined up a hair offsides most of his career.
Atkins, who played from 1953-69, spending 12 years with the Bears, was ahead of his time. At 6-8 and 275 pounds he was the Julius Peppers of his era, able to leap over offensive linemen like a gazelle or toss them aside with brute strength. Legend goes that opposing linemen so feared him that they wouldn’t hold him to avoid inciting his temper.
Jones was the leader of the Rams’ “Fearsome Foursome’’ defensive line. Like Marchetti, Jones started as an offensive tackle - “I hated that position,’’ he said. He whizzed by opponents with his first step, often leaving them dizzy with his speed and signature head slap, a ringing blow to the side of helmet that caused them to shut their eyes for a split second. It was so effective the league outlawed it in 1977.
According to the Rams, Jones had 26 sacks in 1967 and 24 in 1968 - both exceeding the NFL’s recognized season record of 22 1/2, set by Michael Strahan in 2001. However, Turney’s review downgraded Jones’s totals to 21 and 22. Still, since the sack became official no player has recorded two seasons with at least 20 sacks.
In the 1970s, another raging Ram, defensive end/outside linebacker Jack Youngblood, terrorized opposing passers. “I think the best array of moves of anybody,’’ said Turney, who said Youngblood collected 151 1/2 sacks in 14 seasons. Alan Page, the leader of the Vikings’ “Purple People Eaters’’, was a cat-quick defensive tackle who led Minnesota to four Super Bowl appearances. Page, who had 148 1/2 sacks according to Turney, was voted league MVP in 1971. The famed Steel Curtain defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers had more acclaim, but not better pass rushers.
Tippett played during a golden age for the stand-up, outside linebacker pass rusher - the 1980s - with Lawrence Taylor, the New Orleans duo of Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling, and Kevin Greene, the all-time sack leader among linebackers with 160. During that period there were also devastating defensive ends Smith, Reggie White, and Mark Gastineau, who had 22 sacks in 1984.
“I take a little pride,’’ said Tippett, who played from 1982-93. “I know those guys. I competed with them, against them. It’s cool because you watched and admired the work they were putting in. You look at LT putting up 20 sacks. Gastineau put up . I got to 18 1/2 [in 1984], and I was begging for four more sacks. Guys were talented.’’
While pass rushers have gotten bigger, faster, stronger, and more specialized, some only playing in passing situations, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re better than their pocket-collapsing predecessors.
The average pass attempts per game in the 1950s was 53.5. It was 55.4 in the 1960s and dipped to 52.9 in the ’70s. In the 1980s it was 63.5, and 64.9 in the ’90s. From 2000-09 it was 65.3. In 2010, the average was 67.5. Yet the percentage of plays ending in a sack last season was 6.1. In the 1960s that number was 8.4. In the 1970s it was 8.2, dropping to 7.5 in the ’80s and 6.8 in the ’90s.
It may be harder for today’s pass rushers to reach the quarterback because of rule changes and the sophistication of passing attacks and protection schemes.
Until 1976, offensive linemen were only allowed to block with their hands held close to their chest and elbows bent. In 1977 they were allowed to punch with their closed hands to pass block. The next year, the NFL let them fully extend their arms and use open palms.
Jones didn’t have to worry about the “Brady Rule,’’ which prohibits lunging at a quarterback’s knees, or getting fined for slamming a quarterback to the ground, or getting flagged for hitting a quarterback in the head.
“There are guys now playing that you can see that if given the same rules that I played under how good they would be,’’ said Jones. “DeMarcus Ware, I like his game. He knows how to get off the block. He knows how to pressure the passer.’’
Oddly enough, the man who coined the term downplayed the sack as a measure of pass-rushing effectiveness.
“This thing is not about sacks, it’s about pressure on the passer,’’ Jones said. “The quarterback in my time and this time only responds to pressure. You can sack him seven times and he can beat you by 40 points. That’s only seven plays. It’s a consistency of the pressure you put on him that causes problems. You got to hit him. You got to let him know, ‘I’m in your area, sucker, I missed you this time but I’m going to get you next time.’ ’’
Teams blitz more now and have specific packages that feature pass-rush specialists. They run defensive line stunts, twists, and loops to free up rushers, but no matter where they come from, the preferred moves are largely the same, with names like swim, dip, rip, club, bull rush, and spin.
“The things that have changed the most is scheme - how you get to the quarterbacks,’’ said Turney. “They blitz now and disguise more. I don’t think the pass-rush moves have changed. If you look at a great pass rushers now they’re using the same moves. They’re trying to bull rush like Atkins, inside club like Jack Youngblood, and pad slap like Deacon. The individual techniques of pass rushing have not changed that much in my opinion.’’
Perhaps what has evolved more than the art of pass rushing is the attention it receives.