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Jon Kendle is Director of Archives and Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His biweekly columns tell unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton in 1920 to the present day.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Archives, known as The Ralph Wilson, Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center, is home to more than 40 million pages of documents and 6 million photographic images related to every player, coach and contributor who helped build the game to what it is today.
Through meticulous research done inside the Hall’s Archives, historians can add facts and stats back into stories so truths can be known.
Earlier this week, it was announced that Pro Football Reference confidently added sack statistics from 1960 to 1982 to their already impressive database of football statistics.
You might be wondering why that is significant.
Well, although the quarterback sack has been the measure of success for defensive linemen for quite some time, it did not become an official National Football League statistic until 1982. That meant that some of the League’s greatest defensive players never had a tally of their quarterback takedowns.
Now, after decades of research by John Turney and Nick Webster of the Pro Football Researchers Association, a considerable amount of which was done within the reading room of the Ralph Wilson, Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center, these statistics have been documented. And while the NFL still considers pre-1982 sacks an unofficial stat, Turney and Webster have helped put more facts into the stats about sacks.
How did they do it?
It’s important to know these sack totals are based upon review of official NFL and American Football League play-by-plays as well as photographs housed at the Pro Football Hall of Fame and team facilities. Turney and Webster also spent significant time at NFL Films poring over game footage.
“There are still a lot of teams missing play-by-play, and sometimes the play-by-play back in the '60s and '70s didn't identify who tackled the quarterback,” Turney told the Hartford Courant in 2003. “It's a matter of finding out what you can find out. I think if you started with about 1960, we've got a good grasp on every team and every player.”
Thanks to this incredible research, we now know every player who would have led the NFL (and AFL) in sacks each season since 1960.
“It's remarkable how thorough the research is, given the many obstacles,” Mike Lynch explained in his Pro Football Reference Blog. “99% of sacks from the 1970 merger to 1981 are accounted for. From 1966 to 1969, it's closer to 95% (both AFL and NFL). 1961-64 is about 80% coverage. About two-thirds of sacks in 1960 are accounted for.”
It is a staggering amount of work to get those types of percentages related to statistics like these. The best part is that it shines a light on the legacies of incredible players and stories that might not have been shared.
Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones would have led the NFL in sacks five times during his career (1964, 1965, 1967, 1968 and 1969). That is remarkable considering no other player has led the league in sack more than twice.
And how did the term “sack” even come about?
Jones generally is credited with naming the stat.
“We needed a shorter term,” Jones use to explain. “I gave it some thought and came up with the term ‘sack.’ Like, you know, you sack a city; you devastate it. And the word is so short you can even get Deacon in front of Jones in some headlines.”
Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy expanded on Jones’ explanation and said George Allen, a Hall of Fame coach as well, should be given an assist on the trademark.
On a recent conference call, during which the Hall of Fame records the oral history of this great game from the men who lived it, Levy, an assistant under Allen with the Los Angeles Rams, stated: “George was talking to Jones and Hall of Fame defensive tackle Merlin Olsen before one of our games against the Dallas Cowboys. The quarterback for the Cowboys was Craig Morton. The term sack had never been used. It was always, ‘Tackle the QB for a loss.’ But George goes, ‘We’re going to take that Morton salt and pour him into a sack.’ Well, we threw him for a loss six times that game, and the term was born.”
Regardless of how the term came about, Jones made plenty of headlines. He set the standard for sacking quarterbacks. While his name still won’t be found in the NFL’s Record Book, Turney and Webster have helped make it known Jones amassed 173.5 sacks during his NFL career.
That total would rank today as third most behind Bruce Smith (200) and Reggie White (198).