Al “Bubba” Baker wasn’t just the best pass rusher in the NFL in his first five seasons. He was the best pass rusher the NFL has ever seen for the first five seasons of a pro career.
The Detroit Lions claimed Baker in the second round of the 1978 draft with the 40th overall selection. He became a walk-in starter and won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors with his 23 sacks. That stands as a franchise record for the Lions. But his record doesn’t exist in the NFL’s eyes because sacks were not recognized as an official statistic until 1982.
Tell that to the 23 quarterbacks Baker tackled that fall.
Baker followed up his rookie season with 16 sacks in 1979 and 18 more in 1980, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl each of his first three years. Baker dipped to 10 sacks in 1981 but stormed back with 8 ½ in 1982 in just a nine-game, strike-shortened season.
So, in his first five seasons, Baker collected 75 ½ sacks. The only other player with that many sacks in his first five professional seasons was Hall-of-Famer Reggie White – and 23 ½ of his 75 ½ sacks came during his first two years in the USFL with the Memphis Showboats.
Baker collected his 75 ½ sacks in 67 games. For those keeping score at home, that’s better than a sack per game. And that’s Hall-of-Fame stock.
White collected his 75 ½ sacks playing 10 more games in those five seasons than Baker (77). J.J. Watt collected 74 ½ sacks in his first five seasons in 80 games. Bruce Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading sacker with 200, collected only 57 ½ sacks in his first five seasons playing 76 games. Lawrence Taylor? He collected 50 ½ sacks in his first five seasons in 73 games.
Smith, Taylor and White were all first-ballot Hall of Famers, and Watt seems destined to join them. But Baker’s name has never come up in conversation for Canton. His 20-year window of modern-era eligibility expired in 2020, and he tumbles into the abyss that is the senior pool in 2021.
The Lions traded Baker to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1982 because of contract issues, and he would play eight more seasons with three teams without ever returning to the Pro Bowl. But Baker did have three more double-digit sack seasons and remains one of only 20 players in NFL history to reach 130 career sacks.
In fact, there are four players tied at that 132 ½-rung – and two of them are Hall of Famers, Taylor and Claude Humphrey. Baker and Leslie O’Neal are still waiting. O’Neal collected his 132 ½ sacks in 196 games. Baker amassed his in 15 fewer games (181).
Fourteen pass rushers in the 130-sack club have already been enshrined in Canton. Two more await a rubber stamp, Julius Peppers (159 ½ sacks) and DeMarcus Ware (138 ½). That leaves four still on the outside looking in: Baker, O’Neal, John Abraham and Jared Allen. And Allen becomes eligible for the Hall for the first time in 2021. He collected 136 sacks in 187 career games. Abraham, who has been a Hall of Fame finalist, amassed his 133 ½ career sacks in 192 games.
Jason Taylor became a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection in 2017 with his 138 ½ career sacks. It took him two more seasons and 37 more games than Baker to get those extra six sacks. Neither wears a championship ring. But Taylor received the white-glove treatment at the front door from the Hall. Baker can’t even get to the front steps.
The Hall enshrined Terrell Davis based on a three-year window of greatness. Kenny Easley was enshrined based on a four-year window. Baker has a five-year window of greatness…and finished his career with as many sacks in fewer games than Lawrence Taylor. And let’s not forget that 23-sack season in 1978. No pass rusher has hit that number since then.
The Hall is tasked with finding greatness and rewarding it. Are 23 sacks in a season, 74 ½ in the first five seasons and 132 ½ in a career Hall-of-Fame worthy? It’s certainly worthy of a Hall-of-Fame discussion, which Baker has been denied. And that’s a fumble on the part of the Hall.