Sacks. Quarterback sacks. "The essence of the game," says Detroit Lion Defensive Tackle Doug English. "A product of uncontrolled rage," says Defensive End Lyle Alzado, whom Cleveland traded to the Raiders in April. "Absolutely the single greatest thing in the world," says Tom Keating, the right tackle on Oakland's record-setting sack crew of 1967.
Sacks? The greatest thing in the world? "Oh, sacks? I thought you said sex," Keating says. "Sacks are the second-best thing."
"I think I cried after my first NFL sack," says Bubba Baker, the Lions' right defensive end. "It was in our first preseason game, against Buffalo. I gave the tackle a 360-degree move, a basketball move. I'd been waiting all during camp to try it out. He'd come out to block me aggressively and he never touched me, and I got to Joe Ferguson before he'd even set up. I couldn't believe it.
"I heard that roar from the 50,000 people in the stands. My God, I thought, every time I do this, are they going to do that? I've got to get me another one of those. I was crying. I got excited. I went crazy. Next play I jumped offside."
Sack. The term didn't catch on until the late 1960s. Some people think it originated in L.A., with the Rams' famous Deacon Jones-Merlin Olsen-Rosy Grier-Lamar Lundy Fearsome Foursome team. The NFL still doesn't officially recognize the term. "Opponents Tackled Attempting Passes," is the rather stuffy way the league describes sacks in its record book. But at least they're recognized now. Until 1967 there was no official record for team sacks, and for a time before that the play itself didn't show up anywhere in the stats. It was a nonevent.
Sack. A graphic term for a football play. Dallas calls it a trap, but that term hasn't caught on elsewhere. The old mouse-and-cheese idea. Drops? Nope, sounds too much like medicine. Dumps? Uhhh, no, for obvious reasons. Webster's unabridged, second edition, defines sack, from the Latin saccus, as "the pillaging or plundering of a captured town or city by its conquerors—often in phrases as 'to put to sack, to deliver up to sack'; hence, ruin through despoliation." For instance, the sacking of Rome, or Carthage, or Craig Morton.
Some coaches feel that no other play in the game serves as such an exact barometer of success or failure. One doesn't have to look any further than the sack stats to understand how the New York Jets rejoined the ranks of the living last year. They had been notoriously weak pass rushers for almost a decade—their 16 sacks in 1976, when they finished 3-11, was one away from the alltime worst—but last year they erupted with a sacking frenzy, getting 66 of them. As a result, the Jets picked up their first playoff check in 12 years, and the front four of defensive ends Joe Klecko and Mark Gastineau and tackles Marty Lyons and Abdul Salaam picked up a catchy nickname, the New York Sack Exchange.
The Pittsburgh Steelers' fall from greatness came when their sack total decreased from 49 in 1979 to 18 in '80. When the Atlanta Falcons lost their sacking linebacker, Joel Williams, with an injury to his right knee last year, their sacks dropped from the 46 they had in '80 to 29, and their preseason Super Bowl hopes ended at 7-9. Last season each of the nine double-digit winners in the NFL finished in the top half of the league in team sacks. Of the top eight sacking teams in history, six made it into the playoffs, and another, the 1976 San Francisco 49ers, third on the alltime list with 61, had their only winning season in an eight-year stretch.
Pro football statistical analyst Bud Goode says the sack is worth three points. Klecko says a sack isn't "exactly like a touchdown, but it's a big play, both materially and emotionally." The 49ers' coach, Bill Walsh, says, "A pass rush late in the game is the key to NFL football."
To the league office, sacks are very unpleasant things. Bad for the game, for the quarterbacks and for the passing stats. Bad for scoring, attendance and America. And so the rulemakers have unchained the hands of the offensive linemen. We'll let you push off, fellas, and if you don't grab too much we'll look the other way. Poor devils, those offensive linemen, it's about time they got a break. No one ever gave offensive lines catchy nicknames, such as Gold Rush or Silver Rush or Sack Pack or Purple Gang or Doomsday Defense or Steel Curtain. All those belonged to the sack artists, but now it's time to take those defensive monsters in hand. Push them hard. Squeeze the life out of them. Outlaw their head slap, the traditional weapon against an offensive lineman's clutchings.