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.
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.
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 amazingly strong.
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.
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 it."
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."