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Sack story

Setting the record straight on all of those QB takedowns

By John Turney
As published in print June 26, 2000

Reggie White
Reggie White

In 1992, the National Football League was making much ado about Lawrence Taylor becoming the NFL’s all-time sack leader. It was at that point my curiosity peaked, I began asking questions as to why the NFL did not count Taylor’s 1981 sack total of 9½ in his career total. I knew that the sack became an official statistic in ’82, but I wondered aloud why his rookie year was not grandfathered into the record books. Various sources gave various answers, none of which were completely satisfactory. That was the genesis of a research project that has now spanned eight years and required many sources to try and find answers to my questions.

Eventually, Reggie White passed Taylor and was crowned by the NFL and Elias Sports Bureau, the statistical arm of the NFL, as the all-time sack leader. It was amid this backdrop that another individual was asking many of the same questions that I was. Hall of Fame DE Deacon Jones proclaimed that it was he, not White, who was the NFL’s all-time sack king. Jones said to anyone who would listen, "Since when does ‘all-time’ begin in 1982?"

Attempting to prove Jones’ claims was a tedious task, especially since only a few teams had published team sack records in their media guides. So, with the help of a partner, Nick Webster, we traveled to every NFL city and read every available "play-by-play." A play-by-play is a game summary that is used by Elias to compile all NFL statistics. Additionally, I was able to research old game films in Mt. Laurel, N.J., the home of NFL Films, to fill in where a play-by-play may have lacked.

Ultimately, this research showed that Jones was indeed the leading sacker of all time, as he had claimed — until 1997, that is. That season, White surpassed Jones’ regular-season total of 173½ sacks. In the next couple of seasons, Bruce Smith has a realistic shot at surpassing White (although rumors that White might come out of retirement would make Smith’s task much more difficult). Smith has indicated on several occasions that, in addition to winning an NFL title, he is aiming for the sack title as well. Entering the 2000 season, Smith trails White by 21½ sacks.

Now that Jones’ career has been fully researched, he will have to settle for being second or third on the list rather than first. But, Jones understood this when the research began by stating, "Records are made to be broken, but dammit, if the NFL didn’t recognize me as the true all-time sack king, what kind of records would Reggie and Bruce have been breaking? The false kind. But this way it is legit, and I admire what Reggie White and Bruce Smith have done." Jones will still push to have his sacks recognized, but now he seems more content that his greatness has some quantification to it.

Others players have great regard to their place in history. When Kevin Greene retired after the ’99 season, he was asked about how his career would be remembered. His response was simple, "What linebacker has more sacks?" When told no one, Greene responded, "Exactly." Greene felt he had to work hard to pass Lawrence Taylor’s 142 sacks, not just the 132½ he is officially credited with.

When folks talk about Jack Youngblood, it is often in the context of him playing with a fractured fibula. What also should be mentioned is that his pass-rush record is as just about good as anyone who ever played the game. Playing strong-side end in Ray Malavasi-coached defenses — which meant stopping the run first, then rushing the passer — Youngblood amassed over 150 career sacks.

Chris Doleman returned to the Vikings in ’99 and moved in to the rarified air of the 150-sack club. Doleman thought that getting to that mark meant that he would have to be seriously considered for the Hall of Fame when he was eligible, considering that so few players have made it to such a high mark.

The week prior to Taylor’s induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, one reporter asked him what might have happened if the Saints had drafted him. Taylor remarked rather flippantly that he probably would have ended up in rehab sooner. Jokes aside, if the Saints had taken L.T., sacks might still be unofficial. Taylor’s success in 1981 and the monster year of the Jets’ "New York Sack Exchange" created enough buzz that former Jets official Jim Kensil, who was then on the NFL statistics committee, pushed through the requirement that Elias count sacks as official. So, not only did L.T. revolutionize his position, he was a major force in revolutionizing sacks as a statistic. Jones may have popularized the term, but it was L.T who made it stick.

Aside from the quantitative part of my sack research, this project was rewarding on many levels, one of which was to see how different play-by-play accounts would record sacks, or "passer tackled attempting to pass" as it was often called. Jones was credited with popularizing the head slap and also mainstreaming the term "sack." The media has often credited Jones with inventing both, but not even he claims invention — only perfecting.

Editor's note: John Turney is the researcher for the Dick Butkus Football Network ( and is a member of the Pro Football Researchers Association

Turney’s All-Time Sack list

1. DE-DT Reggie White (1985-98) 192.5
2. DE Deacon Jones (1961-74) 173.5
3. DE Bruce Smith (1985-99) 171.0
4. OLB-DE Kevin Greene (1985-99) 160.0
5. DE Jack Youngblood (1971-84) 151.5
6. DE-OLB Chris Doleman (1985-99) 151.0
7. DT Alan Page (1967-81) 148.5
8. OLB Lawrence Taylor (1981-93) 142.0
9. DE Richard Dent (1983-97) 137.5
10. OLB-DE Rickey Jackson (1981-95) 136.0
11. DE Carl Eller (1964-79) 133.5
12. DE-OLB Leslie ONeal (1986-99) 132.5
13. DE-DT Coy Bacon (1968-81) 130.0
14. DE Al Baker (1978-90) 128.5
15. DE Jim Marshall (1960-79) 127.0
16. OLB-DE Derrick Thomas (1989-99) 126.5
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