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The Rush Is On

The sack—and defending against it—is more important than ever

by Peter King

Posted: Wed September 16, 1998
Sports Illustrated The sack has become such a devastating weapon that last week, in preparation for a game against the Chiefs and their speed-rushing sack artist Derrick Thomas, the Jaguars alternated a defensive end and a wide receiver across the line from left tackle Tony Boselli to simulate Thomas's strength and quickness. Thomas was coming off a six-sack destruction of the Raiders in Week 1, and when the Chiefs arrived at their Jacksonville hotel last Saturday, adoring fans gave him a reception worthy of a rock star.

  Boselli and Thomas
Boselli (right) used his size advantage to slow the fleet-footed Thomas.    (Chuck Solomon)
The importance of the pass rush—and defending against it—has grown to the point that the victor in this test of AFC playoff contenders was likely to be determined by the winner of the Thomas-Boselli matchup. As it turned out they went one-on-one 33 times, and Thomas had no sacks of Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell. The 322-pound Boselli used his 75-pound weight advantage and quick feet so effectively that Thomas was never close to getting a sack. Final score: Jaguars 21, Chiefs 16.

When the war was over, the two players slapped hands. Head down, Thomas went to his locker room. Boselli—not Brunell or 100-yard-rusher James Stewart—did an on-field interview with CBS and got the kind of attention the best left tackle in the game deserves. "Derrick's a great player, one of the best in history," Boselli said, with grass still stuck to his arms as he lounged at his locker afterward. "I'm proud of how we played today."

Thomas, whose seven sacks during a 1990 game against the Seahawks remains an NFL record, appears to be in the prime of his career and a threat to eclipse the league's single-season and career marks. But whose records is he really chasing? The NFL didn't begin keeping team sack yardage until 1963, and it wasn't until '82 that the league started tracking individual takedowns. With 113 1/2 career sacks, Thomas ranks ninth alltime.

Not so fast, says John Turney, a 34-year-old football fanatic from Alamogordo, N.Mex. Because he grew up idolizing defensive linemen, Turney in 1992 began an exhaustive project, studying play-by-play summaries from every NFL and AFL game from 1958 through '81 to identify the league's true sack leaders. The Packers' Reggie White, with 179 1/2 career sacks, remains the official NFL sack king, but Thomas ranks only 20th on Turney's list.

Regarding the single-season record, the league recognizes the 22 takedowns by Jets defensive end Mark Gastineau in 1984, but by Turney's count, former All-Pro defensive end Deacon Jones also racked up 22 in 1964 and '68 (see chart).

Likewise, the 59-year-old Jones believes he belongs in the record book. "I'm the most devastating pass rusher the league's ever seen, but who would know that today?" says Jones, whom Turney credits with 173 1/2 sacks during a 14-year career with the Rams, Chargers and Redskins. "It hurts. It hurts me deeply that my numbers, and the guys I played with, aren't recognized."

Jones, who is recuperating from recent surgery for prostate cancer, may be fighting a lost cause on the sack front. The Elias Sports Bureau, the league's official statistician, says the amount of time required to research individual sacks makes such a task unrealistic.

Regardless, Jones believes it will only be a matter of time before Thomas eclipses the single-season and career sack records. "If teams keep single-blocking him," Jones says of Thomas, "he could get 40 some year."

As long as he doesn't have to face Boselli every week.

Issue date: September 21, 1998

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