Deacon Jones Rests in His Own Class of NFL Sack Masters

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jun 04, 2013



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)

The passing of NFL legend David “Deacon” Jones is an especially tough one for football fans.

The Washington Redskins posted Jones’ obituary on Monday night. Though he was 74, his death due to natural causes still feels like another master of the sack has left us too soon.

For a man with such bravado and a sharp tongue, it is hard to believe he has left us quietly. Not only could Jones talk the talk, but he backed it up with his play like few ever have. Jones’ nickname as the “Secretary of Defense” is most fitting.

Jones is even credited as being the man to coin the term “sack” for football. His legacy is secure as one of the greatest players in NFL history.

Playing defensive end for the Rams (1961-71), Chargers (1972-73) and Redskins (1974), Jones only missed five games in his career.

He made eight Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pro five times. He was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1967 and 1968. He was on the All-Decade Team for the 1960s, a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1980, and is a member of the NFL’s prestigious 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.

What’s even more amazing is Jones had this career as a 14th-round pick out of Mississippi Valley State taken by the Los Angeles Rams in the 1961 draft. That makes him one of the greatest draft steals ever.

Jones combined with Merlin Olsen, Lamar Lundy and Rosey Grier to form the “Fearsome Foursome” for the Rams, which is widely considered one of the greatest defensive lines in NFL history.

Jones will be sorely missed.

 

Jones Was the NFL’s Original Sack Master

With NFL news so vapid this time of year, we basically pass the weeks by doing statistical studies. One of those planned studies was to look at the annual league leaders in sacks.

It would have been impossible to do that without some scolding on the scarcity of historic sack data, which has a significant impact on Jones’ career.

The NFL did not make sacks an official statistic until 1982, which was a full eight seasons after Jones retired. Therefore, Jones’ official NFL sack total reads as zero.

But the old game tapes do not lie, nor does the research of historian John Turney, who has documented pre-1982 sacks to create an unofficial list of the true sack leaders. Think of Turney doing for sacks what Captain Comeback has done for fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives, except Turney has been given a cold shoulder from the Elias Sports Bureau for a longer period of time.

The Rams agree with Turney in that Jones had 173.5 sacks in his 191-game career, which would have meant he retired as the all-time sack leader. He has since only been passed by Reggie White (198.0 sacks in 232 games) and Bruce Smith (200.0 in 279 games). Jones’ per-game sack total is higher than both.

It also means Jones would hold the single-season sack record, collecting a stunning 26.0 sacks in 14 games in 1967. Mark Gastineau set the record with 22.0 sacks for the Jets in 1984, until it was Michael Strahan getting that dive from Brett Favre in 2001 to finish with a record 22.5 sacks.

But Jones had 26.0 in a shorter season in a league not as hell-bent on passing the ball. It’s a shame that it’s not officially going to count.

While there are some old, preposterous tales of a player having 17 sacks in one game – keeping in mind the post-1982 record for a single game is 7.0 sacks by Derrick Thomas in 1990 – this is real research that should not be taken lightly. It’s not that hard to tell when there was a sack.

Just like how Johnny Unitas will never get his due for being the original comeback king, Jones will never officially be the first sack master thanks to poor record-keeping habits.

With Jones’ dominance in mind, let’s look at those “official” sack leaders.

 

Annual Sack Leader Study

In collecting data from Pro-Football-Reference, we have a list of the annual sack leaders for every season from 1982-12.

Surprisingly, there has yet to be a tie. “GP” are how many games the player played that season.

NFL's Annual Sack Leader (Regular Season Only)

Player

Year

Age

Team

GP

Sacks

Team Rec.

Result

J.J. Watt

2012

23

HOU

16

20.5

12-4

Lost AFC-DIV

Jared Allen

2011

29

MIN

16

22.0

3-13

No Playoffs

DeMarcus Ware

2010

28

DAL

16

15.5

6-10

No Playoffs

Elvis Dumervil

2009

25

DEN

16

17.0

8-8

No Playoffs

DeMarcus Ware

2008

26

DAL

16

20.0

9-7

No Playoffs

Jared Allen

2007

25

KC

14

15.5

4-12

No Playoffs

Shawne Merriman

2006

22

SD

12

17.0

14-2

Lost AFC-DIV

Derrick Burgess

2005

27

RAI

16

16.0

4-12

No Playoffs

Dwight Freeney

2004

24

IND

16

16.0

12-4

Lost AFC-DIV

Michael Strahan

2003

32

NYG

16

18.5

4-12

No Playoffs

Jason Taylor

2002

28

MIA

16

18.5

9-7

No Playoffs

Michael Strahan

2001

30

NYG

16

22.5

7-9

No Playoffs

La'Roi Glover

2000

26

NO

16

17.0

10-6

Lost NFC-DIV

Kevin Carter

1999

26

RAM

16

17.0

13-3

Won SB

Michael Sinclair

1998

30

SEA

16

16.5

8-8

No Playoffs

John Randle

1997

30

MIN

16

15.5

9-7

Lost NFC-DIV

Kevin Greene

1996

34

CAR

16

14.5

12-4

Lost NFC-C

Bryce Paup

1995

27

BUF

15

17.5

10-6

Lost AFC-DIV

Kevin Greene

1994

32

PIT

16

14.0

12-4

Lost AFC-C

Neil Smith

1993

27

KC

16

15.0

11-5

Lost AFC-C

Clyde Simmons

1992

28

PHI

16

19.0

11-5

Lost NFC-DIV

Pat Swilling

1991

27

NO

16

17.0

11-5

Lost NFC-WC

Derrick Thomas

1990

23

KC

15

20.0

11-5

Lost AFC-WC

Chris Doleman

1989

28

MIN

16

21.0

10-6

Lost NFC-DIV

Reggie White

1988

27

PHI

16

18.0

10-6

Lost NFC-DIV

Reggie White

1987

26

PHI

12

21.0

7-8

No Playoffs

Lawrence Taylor

1986

27

NYG

16

20.5

14-2

Won SB

Richard Dent

1985

25

CHI

16

17.0

15-1

Won SB

Mark Gastineau

1984

28

NYJ

16

22.0

7-9

No Playoffs

Mark Gastineau

1983

27

NYJ

16

19.0

7-9

No Playoffs

Doug Martin

1982

25

MIN

9

11.5

5-4

Lost NFC-DIV

AVERAGES

27.2

 

15.4

17.8

285-203 (.584)

The average sack leader is 27.2 years old. No one was younger than San Diego’s Shawne Merriman, who had 17.0 sacks in just 12 games in his second season (2006) at age 22. Of course his legacy has been more about steroids and injuries than that early success.

J.J. Watt at age 23 last year is the third youngest to lead the league in sacks behind Merriman and Derrick Thomas (1990). His monster season as a 3-4 defensive end was one for the ages.

The oldest player to lead the league in sacks was Kevin Greene, and he did it twice: first at age 32 for the Steelers in 1994, then at age 34 for the Panthers in 1996. He has been a Hall of Fame finalist the last two years.

Not surprisingly, 25 of these 31 seasons saw the player appear in all 16 games.

Doug Martin (not the running back) could not do so for the Vikings in 1982 due to the strike-shortened season. The same goes for Reggie White in 1987, playing 12 games due to the three games with replacement players during that strike. Merriman was suspended four games in 2006 for violating the league’s steroid policy. Jared Allen missed two games in 2007 due to a suspension for his DUI problems.

The average sack leader has made 17.8 sacks. The lowest sack total to lead the league in a 16-game season belongs to Greene with 14.0 in 1994. The record-breaking seasons for Gastineau and Strahan both led to 7-9 records and no postseason for their teams.

In fact, nine of the last 12 sack leaders have failed to qualify for the postseason.

Of the last three sack leaders to make the playoffs, they each lost in the AFC Divisional Playoffs to the Patriots. Watt (2012; 0.5 sacks), Merriman (2006; 1.0 sack) and Dwight Freeney (2004; 1.0 sack) each registered at least half a sack on Tom Brady in those games, but it was no use. Merriman’s actually came as a 0-yard sack on the play right before that crucial fourth-down interception that San Diego fumbled back to the Patriots.

Collectively, these sack leaders played on teams with a 285-203 (.584) record, making the playoffs 18 out of 31 times.

Only Richard Dent (1985 Bears), Lawrence Taylor (1986 Giants) and Kevin Carter (1999 Rams) enjoyed a Super Bowl win after leading the league in sacks. Dent was Super Bowl MVP and Taylor pulled off the incredible feat of league MVP as a linebacker.

The only undrafted player to lead the league in sacks has been Minnesota defensive tackle John Randle (1997).

Six players have led the league in sacks two times: Mark Gastineau (1983-84), Reggie White (1987-88), Kevin Greene (1994, 1996), Michael Strahan (2001, 2003), DeMarcus Ware (2008, 2010) and Jared Allen (2007, 2011).

Only Gastineau and White did it in consecutive seasons. Only Greene and Allen have done it on different teams. Strahan and Ware did it in three-year windows.

Next we took these sack leaders and adjusted their stats for how many pass plays their defense faced that season. It is an imperfect metric since these players obviously did not play every single defensive snap in the season, but the sack rate still helps to provide some context.

Also included is the percentage of the team’s sack total the player had (%TmSacks) on his own.

NFL's Annual Sack Leader - Sack Rate

Player

Year

Team

Sacks

Passes

Tm Sacks

%TmSacks

Sack%

Michael Strahan

2001

NYG

22.5

521

46

48.9%

3.97%

Mark Gastineau

1984

NYJ

22.0

511

44

50.0%

3.96%

Chris Doleman

1989

MIN

21.0

488

71

29.6%

3.76%

Jared Allen

2011

MIN

22.0

538

50

44.0%

3.74%

Mark Gastineau

1983

NYJ

19.0

463

48

39.6%

3.72%

Doug Martin

1982

MIN

11.5

292

30

38.3%

3.57%

DeMarcus Ware

2008

DAL

20.0

508

59

33.9%

3.53%

Derrick Thomas

1990

KC

20.0

512

60

33.3%

3.50%

Reggie White

1987

PHI

21.0

561

57

36.8%

3.40%

Clyde Simmons

1992

PHI

19.0

517

55

34.5%

3.32%

Michael Strahan

2003

NYG

18.5

519

45

41.1%

3.28%

J.J. Watt

2012

HOU

20.5

581

44

46.6%

3.28%

Jason Taylor

2002

MIA

18.5

520

47

39.4%

3.26%

Lawrence Taylor

1986

NYG

20.5

587

59

34.7%

3.17%

Pat Swilling

1991

NO

17.0

491

50

34.0%

3.14%

Jared Allen

2007

KC

15.5

462

37

41.9%

3.11%

Elvis Dumervil

2009

DEN

17.0

510

39

43.6%

3.10%

La'Roi Glover

2000

NO

17.0

488

66

25.8%

3.07%

Derrick Burgess

2005

RAI

16.0

486

36

44.4%

3.07%

Reggie White

1988

PHI

18.0

578

42

42.9%

2.90%

Richard Dent

1985

CHI

17.0

522

64

26.6%

2.90%

Shawne Merriman

2006

SD

17.0

538

61

27.9%

2.84%

Bryce Paup

1995

BUF

17.5

582

49

35.7%

2.77%

DeMarcus Ware

2010

DAL

15.5

540

35

44.3%

2.70%

Neil Smith

1993

KC

15.0

525

35

42.9%

2.68%

Dwight Freeney

2004

IND

16.0

557

45

35.6%

2.66%

John Randle

1997

MIN

15.5

542

44

35.2%

2.65%

Kevin Carter

1999

RAM

17.0

596

57

29.8%

2.60%

Michael Sinclair

1998

SEA

16.5

597

53

31.1%

2.54%

Kevin Greene

1994

PIT

14.0

532

55

25.5%

2.39%

Kevin Greene

1996

CAR

14.5

556

60

24.2%

2.35%

Here we do see the dominance of the seasons from Gastineau and Strahan. We also see the “weakness” of Kevin Greene’s league-leading seasons, though it’s not his fault the 1994 season had the lowest sack percentage in NFL history (5.86 percent league-wide).

On average, these players had 35.8 percent of their team’s sack total, with an average individual sack rate of 3.11 percent.

Gastineau had 22 of his team’s 44 sacks in 1984, which is the highest percentage of anyone here. Watt just came in third with 46.6 percent for Houston last year. The lowest seasons again belong to Greene.

Finally, you often hear how having another quality pass rusher really helps a defense. When there’s just one, an offense can double-team and chip that guy often without much concern.

Well here are the stats on the sack leader’s most productive teammate. Included is that player’s sack total and the gap (“Diff.”) between the top two sackers on each team:

NFL's Annual Sack Leader - Top Teammate

Player

Year

Team

Tm Sacks

Sack Lead

2nd Sacker

Sacks

Diff.

Mark Gastineau

1984

NYJ

44

22.0

Lance Mehl

5.0

17.0

Michael Strahan

2001

NYG

46

22.5

Michael Barrow/Keith Hamilton

6.0

16.5

Reggie White

1987

PHI

57

21.0

Clyde Simmons

6.0

15.0

Jared Allen

2011

MIN

50

22.0

Brian Robison

8.0

14.0

J.J. Watt

2012

HOU

44

20.5

Antonio Smith

7.0

13.5

Michael Strahan

2003

NYG

45

18.5

Kenny Holmes

5.5

13.0

Mark Gastineau

1983

NYJ

48

19.0

Joe Klecko

6.5

12.5

DeMarcus Ware

2008

DAL

59

20.0

Bradie James/Greg Ellis

8.0

12.0

Elvis Dumervil

2009

DEN

39

17.0

Vonnie Holliday

5.0

12.0

Derrick Burgess

2005

OAK

36

16.0

Warren Sapp

5.0

11.0

Derrick Thomas

1990

KAN

60

20.0

Neil Smith

9.5

10.5

DeMarcus Ware

2010

DAL

35

15.5

Anthony Spencer

5.0

10.5

Reggie White

1988

PHI

42

18.0

Clyde Simmons

8.0

10.0

Jason Taylor

2002

MIA

47

18.5

Adewale Ogunleye

9.5

9.0

Michael Sinclair

1998

SEA

53

16.5

Chad Brown

7.5

9.0

Lawrence Taylor

1986

NYG

59

20.5

Leonard Marshall

12.0

8.5

John Randle

1997

MIN

44

15.5

Duane Clemons

7.0

8.5

Kevin Carter

1999

STL

57

17.0

D'Marco Farr

8.5

8.5

Jared Allen

2007

KAN

37

15.5

Tamba Hali

7.5

8.0

Bryce Paup

1995

BUF

49

17.5

Bruce Smith

10.5

7.0

Neil Smith

1993

KAN

35

15.0

Derrick Thomas

8.0

7.0

Doug Martin

1982

MIN

30

11.5

Mark Mullaney

5.0

6.5

Richard Dent

1985

CHI

64

17.0

Otis Wilson

10.5

6.5

Pat Swilling

1991

NOR

50

17.0

Rickey Jackson

11.5

5.5

Shawne Merriman

2006

SDG

61

17.0

Shaun Phillips

11.5

5.5

Dwight Freeney

2004

IND

45

16.0

Robert Mathis

10.5

5.5

Clyde Simmons

1992

PHI

55

19.0

Reggie White

14.0

5.0

La'Roi Glover

2000

NOR

66

17.0

Joe Johnson

12.0

5.0

Kevin Greene

1994

PIT

55

14.0

Greg Lloyd

10.0

4.0

Chris Doleman

1989

MIN

71

21.0

Keith Millard

18.0

3.0

Kevin Greene

1996

CAR

60

14.5

Lamar Lathon

13.5

1.0

Having two great pass rushers may be ideal for team success, but if you want individual domination, having only the one player works fine.

The second-leading sacker only averages 8.8 sacks, which is 9.0 fewer than the team leader. Only 11 of the 31 teams had multiple players with 10+ sacks.

In 1996 Kevin Greene had just one more sack than Carolina teammate Lamar Lathon, who had a breakout year and finished second in the NFL in sacks. That was the smallest difference.

Some of the second sackers were impressive in their own right: Keith Millard, Greg Lloyd, Neil Smith, Bruce Smith, Rickey Jackson, Robert Mathis and Clyde Simmons to name a few.

But in most cases it was a lesser player being elevated because of the presence of this sack leader and/or the overall greatness of some of these defenses.

So when people think Von Miller will struggle in Denver without Elvis Dumervil drawing attention on the other side this year, the reality is Miller will still be productive, may even produce more out of pure necessity, but it probably would have been more beneficial to the Broncos to have both.

It’s not like outside rushers hold hands on their way to the quarterback. Individual sack domination is largely individual-based performance.

You just need a mean S.O.B. like Jones winning his share of battles and causing havoc in the backfield.

 

Conclusion: Jones Was the Pass-Rushing Pioneer

If the NFL built a Mount Rushmore of pass rushers, Deacon Jones would be in George Washington’s spot.

With or without a statue, men like Jones and the late Reggie White have already etched in our minds the images of larger-than-life athletes wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks.

As you can see from the lists above, countless names will come and go as players known for compiling sacks. But only a select few ever carve out a legacy by having long-term impact and that special quality – building the “fame” part of their career – that made them unique like Jones had.

Like with George Washington, we must always remember those who paved the way for others. No living person was around in Washington’s time (or Abraham Lincoln’s for that matter), but the legacy remains intact thanks to the preservation of his accomplishments.

This may only be a game of football, but the history matters as long as we work to make it so. You can talk about the history of football without mentioning Mark Gastineau or even Michael Strahan, but you cannot overlook Jones.

The sack has become such a famous part of the game, earning players trips to the Pro Bowl, gold jackets for the Hall of Fame and millions of dollars in contracts.

But all of the players who have come along since Jones owe him some gratitude for giving a part of their job a name brand.

He made “tackling the quarterback attempting to pass” into a four-letter word that meant something positive. He made it count, even if the league did not start counting until his career was over.

It’s like Jones was wearing Nike before they added the swoosh.

In the future people will look up Jones’ stats and (probably) not see any sacks. Even if they do the extra second of research to discover why that’s the case, understanding the impact he had may never fully hit home to the casual fan.

The NFL may never officially credit Jones with the single-season sack record, or any sack at all, but the Secretary of Defense can rest in knowing that he’s played his part in creating every sack in NFL history.

To a true pioneer of the game: Rest in peace, David “Deacon” Jones.

 

Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.


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