NFL Films has a piece on former Eagles defensive end Norm (Wild
Man) Willey in which he claims he had 17 sacks in a game. The
feature is very entertaining, with Willey maintaining throughout
that people didn't believe him when he told them about his
exploits that day. Count me as one of those nonbelievers,
because I happened to be at that game: Philadelphia Eagles 14,
New York Giants 10, Polo Grounds, Oct. 26, 1952.
This is an article from the Aug. 28, 2000 issue
Philadelphia had defensive ends Willey and Pete Pihos "crashing,"
as rushing the passer was called then, as opposed to the old
"boxing" strategy, or playing the run first. The Giants tried to
block the ends with their guards, who couldn't get outside in
time. It was frightening to watch. My chart has New York
quarterbacks Charley Conerly and Freddie (Needle) Benners going
down 14 times, with Willey collecting eight of the sacks, which
weren't so named until years later, and Pihos getting six.
Willey's eight probably would have been a record (as would the
Eagles' 14), except the NFL didn't recognize individual sack
totals until 30 years later. That's sad because many of the great
pass rushers before the '80s will never get their due.
Willey, Pihos, Doug Atkins, Gino Marchetti--their numbers are
lost. Aside from the players, no one has been more discouraged
about this than John Turney, a 36-year-old gift shop owner from
Alamogordo, N.Mex., who has pored over play-by-play charts and
viewed hundreds of reels of film in an attempt to establish
accurate totals for as many old-timers as he can. His research
goes back to around 1960. "Before that, there are only a few bits
and pieces of information," he says.
After painstakingly checking and rechecking his data, he has come
up with sack numbers for pass rushers in the '60s and '70s. The
totals are relative because teams play more games now than they
did years ago, and many more passes are thrown per game. But the
old-time pass rushers were allowed to use techniques like the
head slap, which was banned in 1977, and offensive linemen
couldn't hold the way they can now. Aided by Turney's numbers,
I've come up with my top 10 list of the alltime greatest sackers.
1 REGGIE WHITE
EAGLES, PACKERS, PANTHERS
A tough choice over Deacon Jones, but if White, 38, could have
used the head slap, as Jones did, his numbers would be out of
sight. He plays the run, he rushes the passer, and in his early
days with the Eagles, he occasionally lined up over the ball.
His game is complete. He is the heaviest man on my list, topping
out at 305 pounds, and his moves are built on power. He's
In his early years White would use an outside speed rush, but as
he has gotten older and bigger, he has relied more on his "hump"
technique, which is basically a clubbing, inside power move. His
repertoire doesn't contain a lot of moves--the arm over, swim and
spinner--but with the strength he possesses he doesn't need many.
When he was in his prime, he could split a double team with sheer
explosion, and he would take delight in carrying his man into the
backfield and dumping him into the passer.
2 DEACON JONES
RAMS, CHARGERS, REDSKINS
For a while he was Turney's single-season-record holder, with 26
sacks in 1967 and another 24 in '68. Further scrutiny of
play-by-play sheets and films, though, showed that Rams coach
George Allen credited a shared sack as a solo for each sacker, so
Jones's totals in those years dropped to 21 and 22, respectively.
The latter would have tied Mark Gastineau's official record for
the most sacks in a season. "Deacon was furious," Turney says of
the sacks that were taken from him. "He still doesn't believe
Jones could split helmets with his head slap, and his outside
speed rush was devastating. He probably ranks with former Charger
and 49er Fred Dean and the Titans' Jevon Kearse as the fastest
defensive ends of all time. Plus, Jones was relentless; he never
gave up. He collected sacks on his hands and knees. One Jones
quote sticks with me: "We're like a bunch of animals, kicking and
clawing and scratching at each other."
3 LAWRENCE TAYLOR
He revolutionized the outside linebacker spot, playing a rush
linebacker who at times moved to end in a four-man front. He was
too quick for tackles who tried to block him and too strong for
running backs who had to pick him up when he blitzed. Frustrated
opponents tried combination blocks, which meant assigning a bunch
of guys to him and hoping for the best. The unexpected part of
Taylor's game, and the move he took the most pride in, was the
power rush, which always shocked people playing against him for
the first time. A 245-pound linebacker isn't supposed to throw
I saw him make the greatest play I've ever seen by a defensive
player, against the Redskins at Giants Stadium in November 1983.
LT blitzed, and Joe Jacoby, Washington's 300-pound All-Pro left
tackle, tried to pick him up. Taylor grabbed him by the pads and
threw him, flushing quarterback Joe Theismann out of the pocket.
George Starke, the right tackle, peeled back to throw a block,
but Taylor knocked him to the ground without breaking stride.
Then Taylor caught Theismann 15 yards downfield. That's 560
pounds of linemen he disposed of and a quarterback with 4.6 speed
he ran down.
4 JACK YOUNGBLOOD
Everyone knows about his pain threshold. In the Rams' Super Bowl
year of 1979 he played most of the playoffs with a fractured left
fibula. He missed one game in a 14-year career. He played the
power side even though he was undersized at 242 pounds and in
coach Ray Malavasi's system he had to play head-up on the tackle
a lot and stop the run first. Yet he ranks on Turney's list as
the fifth-leading sacker, mainly thanks to as complete an
assortment of moves as any defensive end ever had. His game was
built on speed, leverage and angles.
When coach John Robinson brought in the 3-4 defense, in 1983,
Youngblood, who occasionally had been allowed the luxury of
splitting wide for his rush on passing downs, was trapped inside.
Offensive tackles were getting bigger and bigger, too. "It seems
that they're all coming out rubber-stamped 6'6", 280," he said.
Yet Youngblood collected a total of 20 sacks in his last two
5 BRUCE SMITH
His sack totals have been slipping recently, but for many years
he and White were the NFL's premier pass rushers. In Buffalo,
Smith played the right side, the sacking side, and his trademark
move was a swift upfield rush followed by a burst inside. He was
a master at setting up a lineman, then shocking him with a
lightning spin, rip or swim move. A conditioning nut, he built
his game on speed and endurance. At times the Bills played him
inside, often over the nose, to capitalize on his quick-strike
The giveback was his vulnerability to traps and draws, and it
became a point of honor with him to improve his techniques. But
we're talking about sackers here, and Smith, 37, has been one of
the game's most feared rushers for more than a decade.
6 GINO MARCHETTI
DALLAS TEXANS, COLTS
In 1952, the year that Marchetti turned pro, a defensive lineman
was expected to jolt his man with a forearm or a fist, obtain
separation and then go for the ball. Marchetti played offensive
tackle that season, and he says the experience changed his
approach. "I realized that the hardest guy for me to block wasn't
the guy who took me on straight up but the one who made me miss,"
he said. "So those were the techniques I worked on the next year
when I became a defensive end."
Marchetti, who played in 10 Pro Bowls, developed a new pass-rush
technique--grabbing and throwing--and relied on quick moves and
footwork. "I've heard defensive players say, 'Hell, I didn't even
get my uniform dirty playing against Marchetti,'" said Weeb
Ewbank, Marchetti's coach with the Colts. "Well, he dirtied a lot
of quarterbacks' uniforms."
7 MARK GASTINEAU
This selection will not sit well with a lot of folks. Opponents
and teammates disliked him. His famous sack dance so infuriated
Rams tackle Jackie Slater, one of the game's true gentlemen, that
Slater went after him following one play. Bengals guard Max
Montoya did a trap dance after Cincinnati ran for a touchdown
over Gastineau, who'd been trap-blocked by Montoya. Gastineau's
teammates on the Jets' famed Sack Exchange hated the idea that he
took little interest in playing the run and often refused to run
In the three full seasons of 1981, '83 and '84 (the '82 season
was strike-shortened, but Gastineau was named the NFL's
Defensive Player of the Year after picking up six sacks in nine
games) he averaged 20 1/3 sacks, including an NFL-record 22 in
1984. A pure outside rusher, he was practically unblockable. He
relied on 4.56 speed, martial arts techniques and weight
training devoted to the abdominal muscles, which he said gave
him the ability to coordinate arm quickness with his speed.
8 KEVIN GREENE
RAMS, STEELERS, PANTHERS, 49ERS
No one was more aware of his sack totals than Greene. In 1996,
the year the Panthers reached the NFC title game, he told me he
was worried about blurred vision caused by a concussion. He was
34. "Better think about retiring," I said. "Can't," Greene said.
"Got to get LT's record for linebacker sacks." The next year,
after Greene had vaulted over a blocker to make a sack, a
Carolina p.r. man called down to the bench to congratulate him
on getting the record. "Not yet," Greene said. "I need one
more." Sure enough, the press box stats were wrong. He got the
record in the next game.
He played many roles in his 15-year career: designated open-side
rusher, an outside linebacker in a 4-3 and a 3-4, a stand-up
defensive end. He preferred the outside move, but if he had to,
he could turn on a ferocious power rush.
9 AL (BUBBA) BAKER
LIONS, CARDINALS, BROWNS, VIKINGS
He stood 6'6", weighed a lean 265 pounds and had played
basketball at Colorado State. He would post up his man from his
end spot, spin inside, spin outside, sometimes use a double spin.
Occasionally he would fake the spin and then come in with a club
and bull rush. He was a most confusing player to block.
Individual sacks were kept only by each team's p.r. department
when Baker racked up 23 as a rookie in 1978, but for years the
Lions and the Cardinals compared Baker's sack total with his
games played in their releases. He lasted six seasons with sacks
outnumbering games, 84 1/2 to 83, thought to be the best anyone
had done until then. "First time I ever got a sack, it was no
big deal to me," he said, "until I heard the way the crowd went
wild. I thought, Damn, I've got to get me some more of those."
10 COY BACON
RAMS, CHARGERS, BENGALS, REDSKINS
He was 26 when he finally caught on with George Allen's Rams, in
1968. Bacon was big for a defensive end, 6'4", 270 pounds, and
given to furious pass rushes when the mood seized him. When Chuck
Knox took over as coach in 1973, assistant Tom Catlin mentioned
that Bacon wouldn't play the run. "He won't what?" Knox said.
Bacon was traded to San Diego, and after three seasons there was
shipped to Cincinnati, where he got 21 1/2 sacks in 1976.
"He's a guy I hated playing against," said former Eagles tackle
Stan Walters. "If he started well, he'd give you problems. Once
we were beating them badly. At the end he screamed at me, 'You
ain't nothing!' I said, 'Hey, fern brain, look at the
cnnsi.com. For a historical photo gallery of Dr. Z's top 10
pass rushers, go to cnnsi.com/football