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.
The new rules have offensive linemen stampeding into the weight room. Pump iron, pile on walls of muscle, especially in the upper body, the arms. This spring the Redskins were boasting of a new dedication to weightlifting destined to produce an offensive line averaging 280 pounds. The Godzilla Syndrome. Nineteen-inch arms that a guard can use like war clubs. Quick defensive tackle, eh? Well, here's a push for you, whump!
Muscle begets muscle. Back to the weight room go the pass rushers, the sackers, all those huge but lean 4.7 sprinters who once dominated the game through speed and moves and guile.
"Pass rushers are having a terrible time now," says San Francisco Defensive Coordinator Chuck Studley. "Lots of arms out there. To beat his man, individually, a rusher must have the physical assets; he must be able to butt, to shoulder drive, to power over the top or to swing his man around. Pushing iron is a religion for pass rushers. They must have that upper body strength."
"There's no question, you have to have strength again," says Chicago Bear Defensive Tackle Jim Osborne, a 10-year veteran. "When I first came into the league I relied heavily on it. Then I looked around and saw that some of the guys who were most successful—Wally Chambers, Joe Greene, Jerry Sherk—were using their quickness. Wally never went near the weight room. They were getting all the ink. I figured maybe what they were doing was right. I started relying more on quickness. Then, after the rule changes, that wasn't working. Now I've got to spend more time in the weight room. I need more strength."
"I hate all that weightlifting," says Klecko, the leading sacker in the NFL last year. "It's boring, it's sickening, but it has to be done. I'd like to send a directive to all the offensive and defensive linemen in the NFL. From now on, no more weight training. You'll just rely on natural strength. Put 'em on the honor system. But you know some guy would cheat and then the cycle would start all over again."
They are calling Klecko, a 6'2½", 272-pound former ECAC heavyweight champion in boxing, the prototype of the new-style defensive end, proof that you don't have to stand 6'5" to play the position. Of course, anyone who's successful in anything becomes a prototype until a new one comes along, but Klecko's 20½ sacks in 1981 put him alongside the half a dozen or so players who have ever had more than 20 in a season.
"You take 10 guys and put 'em in a room," Klecko says, "and I'd be the last one you'd put outside on the end. Big offensive tackles used to see me line up and they'd laugh. What's that short, squatty guy doing out there?"
Klecko's attributes include tremendous quickness off the ball, great strength and a boxer's instinct for knocking away an opponent's hands and beating him to the inside position. And, says Green Bay Coach Bart Starr, Klecko has "something within him that flames very hot."
"He does some things you just can't copy," says Minnesota Viking Defensive Tackle Doug Martin, "like grabbing his opponent by the shoulders and just walking him back to the quarterback. He's an exception."
It all came together for Klecko and the Jets last year. Their 66 sacks were 14 more than the total of the next-best team, Oakland. Defensive coaches have begun studying New York's films. Perhaps there's a way to beat the new pass-blocking rules after all.
"Lockout. The Jets were specialists in the lockout technique," says George Perles, who coached Pittsburgh's defense last year and is now head coach of the United States Football League's Philadelphia franchise. "It was the key to their pass rush. The offensive lineman is bent at the hips, in hitting position, arms extended. You get two defensive ends with enormous strength like those two, Klecko and Gastineau, and they do the identical thing the offensive linemen do, only Klecko and Gastineau beat 'em to the punch. They get their hands inside and lock the offensive guys' elbows out and then run them over, drive them right over the quarterback or on their cans. In the old days we said you couldn't use brute strength to push offensive linemen around. You needed technique; the game was played with your legs. But all this bench-pressing in the weight room has changed that. The guy who has his hands inside is winning. He's got all the leverage on his side."
The key for a coach, of course, is fitting a style to his personnel. "Big wild-and-woolly types," is how Ram Defensive End Cody Jones describes Klecko and Gastineau, and it would be silly to try to program them to use the quick, slashing moves of Jones's All Pro teammate, Jack Youngblood, or the 49ers' Fred Dean.
Gastineau, the Jets' 25-year-old left end, is blessed with a physical package seldom seen on this planet. At 6'5", 276 pounds, he has run a 4.56 40. One summer his weight soared to 295, but he still ran a 4.6. Once, when he was playing at East Central Oklahoma State University in Ada, a scout came to get a clocking on him. Gastineau's father got into the act, peeling off his jacket and running a 4.9—in street shoes.
New York fans love Gastineau for his sack dance, a wild hippety-hop that he got to perform-20 times last season, plus a few times on other people's sacks. "Against Green Bay he did it after one of mine," Lyons says. "I told him, 'If you're going to dance, do it on your own sacks.' " Other players weren't so wild about Gastineau's act.
"I reminded Mark," says Jet Quarterback Richard Todd, "that those offensive tackles lying on the ground watching him do that thing are the same ones who are going to be voting for the Pro Bowl."
"I never do it near offensive linemen," Gastineau says. "I get away from them and do it."
They chose him to play in the Pro Bowl anyway.
Gastineau says he'll continue to dance. He tried playing one season without it, and he was "absolutely miserable," he says. "That was in 1980, my second year. I'd let other people influence my thinking. I'd seen my teammates fold their arms and walk away from me. I'd been told, 'We don't do that hot-dog stuff on the Jets.' In God's truth, what I'd been doing had been a natural reaction. So for one season I didn't do the dance. It was the most unhappy year of my life. I'd get a sack and I'd say, 'Don't jump, Mark, don't jump.' I'd want to rip my mouthpiece out and start chewing on it. In the off-season I talked to my wife and my parents about it. They told me to do what I wanted to do. I talked to our coach, Walt Michaels, and our president, Jim Kensil, and even to the owner, Leon Hess. They all said, 'Go on and do it if it makes you happy.' So last year I danced again."
Though other defensive lines resorted to a whole playbook full of stunts and twists, end-tackle crisscrosses, slants and deep loops, the Jets played it pretty much straight in '81. They'd use a few twists as a change of pace, but those were mainly to set up their straight-ahead killer rush. In the face of enormous pressure by New York's outside men, opposing quarterbacks would try to step up in the pocket, but that was no bargain either, because 1981 was the year the inside men, Lyons and Salaam, asserted themselves.
"I look at it this way," says Salaam, a six-year veteran. "The offensive linemen are trying to make a cup, we're trying to empty it. We force the quarterback out of the pocket so the guys on the end can catch him." The Jets' inside pressure killed the Packers in the regular-season finale, a game each team needed to win for a playoff spot. Nine sacks were New York's harvest that day.
"The big difference for me," says Salaam, a vicious hand-fighter who was a Cincinnati Golden Gloves champ and an outstanding high school wrestler, "was when the coaches took me out of the guard-center gap and put me head-up on the guard. I'd been in a read-and-react situation before, but now I could work on beating my man and putting pressure on the passer. Instead of survival, my game was now domination."
Lyons, a first-round draft choice in '79, had been one of the best pass-rushing tackles Bear Bryant ever had at Alabama, but in one of those strange bits of coaching inspiration, the Jets decided to try him at end as a rookie and then lift him for Gastineau on passing downs. "Lifting you on the gravy plays doesn't make you feel worth a damn," says Lyons. In 1980 they moved him back inside, and in '81, with a full year of working together under their belts, the Jets' front four exploded as a unit—and the Jets took off for the playoffs.
Sacks are clearly among the game's most important statistics, but until 19 years ago the league record keepers didn't know how to handle them. At first they weren't recognized at all. The losses were just lumped in with rushing yardage. Then in the early 1960s the yardage was recorded as "team yards lost passing," but the sack itself didn't show up anywhere on the stat sheets. "Total defensive plays" consisted of rushes, passes, punts and field-goal attempts, but a sack was a nothing, a bitter memory to be erased. When Oakland set its record in 1967, no big deal was made of it. "I knew we were getting a lot of sacks," Keating says, "but no one talked of records or anything like that."
Sadly, no individual sack records have ever been kept by the NFL, so the great pass rushers of the past, like Baltimore's Gino Marchetti, Green Bay's Willie Davis and Denver's Rich Jackson, have left no statistical tracks by which they can be measured. Up until this season individual totals have been compiled informally by most teams for 15 years or so. Coy Bacon's 26 sacks for Cincinnati in 1976 is believed to be the high for a season, but who knows? The Cowboys' Harvey Martin had 23 one year. So did Baker, who came into the NFL in 1978 and whose record of 67 sacks in 58 starts with the Lions probably ranks him as the best pure sacker in the game today.
This season the league will begin keeping individual records after sending out detailed instructions to the clubs on how to determine them. Last year each team had its own system. The Jets' defensive line coach, Dan Sekanovich, had a unique method of awarding half a sack for every two "spooks," a spook being "every time you spook the quarterback into someone else's tackle."
Some coaches give almost the same weight to a spook—or a "pressure" or a "hurry"—as they do to a sack. "Sacks are garbage stats," says former Houston Defensive Line Coach Joe Galat. "One guy does all the work and the other one gets the sack." Says Green Bay's Defensive Line Coach Doc Urich, "A pass rush is a pass rush, and a sack is a public relations thing."
Most players disagree. "Coaches always tell you how important hurries are," Baker says, "but the players don't believe it. There's nothing like seeing the quarterback go down with the ball. Last year our left end, Dave Pureifory, and I came up with our own statistic. We figured 500 hurries equal one sack."
In 1976, as pass rushers became leaner and quicker, NFL sacks reached a high of 9.98 per 100 passes thrown. Defense was taking over. And attendance was declining. So in 1977 the head slap was taken away from the defensive linemen. The next year the offensive linemen were allowed to shove off and generally use their hands more freely, and the one-bump rule was put in to limit the defensive backs. The year after that, 1979, the five-yard bump zone was installed. The passing lanes opened up; quarterbacks began taking a shorter drop and throwing quicker, timed patterns; and sacks decreased every season, down to a low of 7.20 per 100 passes thrown in 1981, a 28% decrease in five years. And attendance has shown a steady rise since 1977, attaining a regular-season record of 60,745 per game last year.
"For the offensive linemen," says Tampa Bay Buccaneer Coach John McKay, "the new rules have whetted a natural instinct to hold."
"The league has given the offense all the weapons now," 49er Linebacker Jack Reynolds says. "It's like Great Britain against Argentina."
"I'd have a lot of trouble playing the game under today's rules," Olsen says. "My whole thrust was to try to make some initial contact with the offensive lineman, but now he'll grab you and you'll never get away. Nowadays you need stunts and tricks and designated pass rushers like Dean. The whole idea is to avoid contact. The new rules have destroyed one of the finest parts of the game, the integrity of one-on-one battles on the line. You don't get that anymore. It's a wrestling match now, a joke. If you went back to the rules of five or six years ago, very few offensive linemen today could play the game. You can get any big strong guy off the street and teach him to pass-block. I'm sad. They've taken an art form and destroyed it. Some people are very Machiavellian. They look at the scoreboard, they look at the dollar sign. Does that mean happiness?"
Cedrick Hardman, whose 12-year career as a right defensive end for the 49ers and the Raiders spanned both eras, is equally saddened. "You're blessed with a God-given talent," he says. "You work a whole career to learn the skill to use it, to get it down. And then some rich guys who never played the game get together in Hawaii or someplace, over a cocktail, and take away what you've perfected.
"My whole game was ball anticipation, getting off on the split second. Then I could use my moves. Today some of those big old lead-foots on the offensive line can still get off a step late and get a hand on you and push you off stride.
"Joe Greene was my idol, my teammate at North Texas State. He was the Dr. J of football. No one guard could handle his quickness. Hands are what finished him. He'd still be playing today, still killing people, except for hands."
Defensive linemen are now being instructed in hand-fighting techniques. Strange-looking people are showing up on the practice field: "Now listen up, fellas. This guy's going to show you all about kendo." Dallas has used a martial arts instructor. "We tried one, too, but it didn't quite take hold," says the Rams' Youngblood. "But I do work out on a speed bag every day after practice." Says Klecko, the former boxer, "I like to hit the big bag. I'd like to set one up in the house and hit it every day, but I can't because of the noise. I've got a one-year-old now. Sleeps a lot."
Some oldtimers, including Youngblood, can look at things philosophically. "They're the rules, and we have to live with them," he says, "and what they're making me do is work harder to develop new skills, new techniques. But you sort of miss the old guys, offensive linemen like our Charlie Cowan and Rayfield Wright on the Cowboys, guys who'd take you on within the rules. They've done died and left me standing here. [St. Louis'] Dan Dierdorf, though, he's old world. He was never a big weightlifter; he never lifted anything heavier than a fork."
Youngblood sees the challenge now as "having to use my speed and quickness, or what's left of it, to the fullest." That's one theory. Trick the big weightlifters along the offensive line. Confuse them, throw feints and stunts at them, odd people popping up in odd places.
The 49ers' Studley, who last year used the 228-pound Dean as a situation player, as a weak-side pass rusher—"the idea is to get him playing in open space"—noticed that teams were loading up on Dean's side toward the end of the season. So in the Super Bowl, Studley stacked Dean as a blitzing middle linebacker. Walsh says that in 1982 opponents can expect to see more of Dean in unusual places. "You'll see him as a linebacker," he promises. "You'll see him dropping off into coverage. They won't know where to find him."
And watch for more sophisticated blitzes this season. "When we faced the 49ers in the playoffs," says the New York Giants' 240-pound killer linebacker, Lawrence Taylor, "they picked up my outside blitzes with a pulling guard. O.K., now we're ready for that. It leaves a gap and we'll shoot that gap with one, maybe two linebackers."
"Confusion," says the Raiders' Ted Hendricks, a free-lancing type of blitzing linebacker. "The whole idea's going to be to spread confusion among the offense. For the last two years I did a lot of things people couldn't understand. I'd get out of my position and walk right over to the other side of the defense. My teammates would yell, 'What are you doing over here?' They didn't understand that what I was doing came from a very careful film study of tendencies and formations, and a lot of times I'd hear offensive players yelling at the quarterback, 'You can't call that, he's standing right in the hole.' As far as my coaches were concerned, they didn't say anything as long as I guessed right."
For most of the defensive linemen, though, rushing the passer is still a matter of strength, and quickness off the ball. "Quickness is the key to getting to the quarterback," says Cowboy Defensive Tackle Randy White. "None of your moves or strength are any good if you don't get off the ball and into your man before he's comfortably set up. Sometimes you'll have to resort to a straight bull rush, a head butt, just to convince him you're capable of it. Sometimes it gets you through, too, especially if he's looking to 'tackle' you."
"Sometimes just plowing right in is what it comes down to," Baker says. "Straight on, no moves, no help. You may wind up getting in on your knees, but what you're doing is destroying a man's will, evening things up for all those holds and takedowns. A lot of players don't like that approach. They want to get away from the Roman gladiator tactics. A lot of people play with a scientific attitude in mind. You just hope you get one in front of you on Sunday."
"Defensive coaches are going to have to work harder," Perles says. "So are the players. Offensive linemen are sewing their jerseys tight, they're taping them to their pads so we can't get a grip. O.K., we have to do that, too. I tell my people, 'Take your jersey home. Have your tailor sew it. Have your wife sew it. Get involved.' "
Pass rushing, quarterback sacks, will determine the winners and losers for 1982, Walsh believes. The hunt is on for defensive linemen, not two or three but half a dozen of them per team, all ready to come in at any time. Fresh troops. Superior athletes.
"Sometimes you see a boxing match where for seven or eight rounds the underdog holds on or even gets ahead," says Walsh. "You think an upset is in the making, but then at the end the champion gets him; the champ has worn him down. The pass rush can be like that. Constant pressure by a whole group of superior athletes will wear a blocker down. He gets a little tired, and he isn't able to deal with it anymore. The odds have run out on him."
And then it will be time for some more new rules.
As sackers like Dean (74) know well, offenses now favor a hands-on approach.
English, downing K.C.'s Bill Kenney, calls the sack "the essence of the game."
As White (54) demonstrates, sack artists need to have a boxer's quick hands.
In '81 the Sack Exchange—with an NFL high of 66 sacks—had a more bullish year than the New York Stock Exchange.
If not for the new pass-blocking rules, quarterbacks would be an endangered species.
—Dave Lapham Left Guard, Cincinnati Bengals
"Let's face it, the pass rushers were getting to be just too good athletes. Guys are coming up now who are 6'5", 270, and they can run a 4.7 40. My clocking's on the sundial somewhere. They could just rush the passer at will if we couldn't extend our hands and lock our elbows.
"Besides, they have all the momentum. We're going backward, retreating, giving ground—grudgingly. They're going forward. You've got to have something to equalize that.
"What these rules have done is to take a lot of pressure off the umpire, who has to call most of the holding. A lot of it was going on before anyway. Personally, I might grab a little cloth every now and then; it can't be helped, but I try to let it go.
"I've heard complaints about us clamping down on guys' arms, but say you extend your arms and the defensive lineman throws an uppercut to get your arms off him. Well, then the blocker is allowed to clamp down on the defensive guy's arms. It's strength vs. strength, and it really bothers defensive linemen a lot, but as long as you don't take 'em down it's O.K.—I mean you can't use a sumo-wrestler move where both of you hit the dirt.
"But don't think that the defensive guys don't get away with a lot of stuff, too. On end-tackle games or tackle-tackle games, where one defensive lineman penetrates into the gap and the other one loops around him, well, often the first guy will just reach in and grab enough cloth to nullify both the guard and center. That'll free his partner, the looper. It should be a five-yard penalty for defensive holding, but I've never seen it called.
"The old Baltimore Sack Pack team was great at it. The Steelers were real good at it, too. Joe Greene was great at grabbing and consuming two guys. Teams that use zone blocking, as we do, are hurt most by this. When you're blocking man-to-man you just follow your man when he loops, but a zone-or area-blocking team is shafted.
"One thing that saddened me, though, was when they outlawed the head slap. An offensive lineman paid his dues with the bell ringers. Some of those head slappers just wanted to stand there and beat you up; they forgot about rushing the passer. It wasn't the bell ringers and bull rushers that gave me problems; it was the guys who combined speed with strength.
"But you still see head slaps. A lot of guys use the shoulder slap now, and that can be almost as effective in stunning you and getting your body weight moving one way. But sometimes they'll miss the shoulder and get your head. They'll say, 'Sorry, I was aiming for your shoulder,' but in the meantime you're getting a long-distance phone call and there's nobody home to answer it.
"Jerseys are tighter now, too, so it's tough for players—offensive or defensive—to grab cloth like they used to. For a while everyone was greasing up with slick substances such as silicone and Vaseline, but the officials are watching for that now. I've seen the umpire come up and feel the jerseys of all the linemen on the field. So everyone's tightening up his jersey. They're stuffing kneepads into gaps created by their shoulder pads to smooth those areas over. Some guys are punching holes in their sleeves and putting in laces, and then lacing them up tight.
"At Cincinnati we went to a velour-type jersey last year. It's hot as hell, but it's a slicker material. They're formfitting, too—picture French-cut football jerseys. We had to go and get them fitted. It's gotten to the point where you have to put on your shoulder pads and jersey as a single unit now. And you have to be a contortionist to get the stuff off. You practically choke yourself."