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Pre-1982 Sacks Added To Pro Football Reference

The NFL has only officially counted player sacks since 1982, which means sack records and leaderboards present an incomplete history of pass rushing. In many cases we accept these holes in the official record and move on. After all, we don't know how many rushing yards Jim Thorpe had, passing yards Paddy Driscoll had or even how many blocked shots Wilt Chamberlain had. Heck, we don't even "officially" know how many tackles anyone had in 2020 (or any other season). However, thanks to Official Gamebooks, 'unofficial' tackle totals get published in many places (including here). In the case of sacks, thanks to decades of research by John Turney and Nick Webster, we have a very thorough accounting of the statistic all the way back to 1960. Given that accounting for these 'unofficial' statistics allows us to paint a richer picture of the history of the game, we think it is a no-brainer to present them on Pro Football Reference, allowing fans to gain a deeper appreciation of some of football's biggest stars in the 1960s and 1970s. This isn't terribly different from presenting RBI totals for baseball players from before 1920 (the first season the statistic was "official"). These additions allow us to print year-by-year and career sacks totals for not just legends such as Deacon Jones (173.5), Jack Youngblood (151.5), Alan Page (148.5), Carl Eller (133.5) and Joe Greene (77.5), but also for less recognized stars like Coy Bacon (130.5), Cedrick Hardman (122.5) and Jack Gregory (106.0) whose greatness and impact can now be more readily quantified.

Turney and Webster, stalwart members of the Pro Football Researchers Association, have been compiling these numbers for nearly 30 years. To read a bit about their work and methods, we would recommend checking out these articles from the Hartford Courant, New York Times and ESPN's old Page 2. The important things to know are that these numbers are based upon review of official play-by-plays, watching game film, photographs and coaches' stats. The work continues to this day as new information is discovered, particularly for numbers from the early 1960s.

It's remarkable how thorough the research is, given the many obstacles. 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.

With the new data incorporated into the site, here's how the "unofficial" NFL sacks leaderboard (back to 1960) looks:

Unofficial Leaders Table
Rank Player Sk Years Tm
1 Bruce Smith+ 200.0 1985-2003 2TM
2 Reggie White+ 198.0 1985-2000 3TM
3 Deacon Jones+ 173.5 1961-1974 3TM
4 Kevin Greene+ 160.0 1985-1999 4TM
5 Julius Peppers 159.5 2002-2018 3TM
6 Jack Youngblood+ 151.5 1971-1984 ram
7 Chris Doleman+ 150.5 1985-1999 3TM
8 Alan Page+ 148.5 1967-1981 2TM
9 Lawrence Taylor+ 142.0 1981-1993 nyg
10 Michael Strahan+ 141.5 1993-2007 nyg
11 Jason Taylor+ 139.5 1997-2011 3TM
12 Terrell Suggs 139.0 2003-2019 3TM
13 DeMarcus Ware 138.5 2005-2016 2TM
14 Richard Dent+ 137.5 1983-1997 4TM
John Randle+ 137.5 1990-2003 2TM
16 Jared Allen 136.0 2004-2015 4TM
Rickey Jackson+ 136.0 1981-1995 2TM
18 John Abraham 133.5 2000-2014 3TM
Carl Eller+ 133.5 1964-1979 2TM
20 Leslie O'Neal 132.5 1986-1999 3TM
21 Al Baker 131.0 1978-1990 4TM
22 Coy Bacon 130.5 1968-1981 4TM
Jim Marshall 130.5 1960-1979 2TM
24 Claude Humphrey+ 130.0 1968-1981 2TM
25 Derrick Thomas+ 126.5 1989-1999 kan
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 7/12/2021.

And here's the "unofficial" single-season leaderboard. As you can see, Al Baker's 23.0 in his 1978 rookie season is the unofficial record:

Unofficial Leaders Table
Rank Player Sk Year Tm
1 Al Baker (21) 23.0 1978 DET
2 Michael Strahan+ (29) 22.5 2001 NYG
3 Jared Allen (29) 22.0 2011 MIN
Mark Gastineau (27) 22.0 1984 NYJ
Justin Houston (25) 22.0 2014 KAN
Deacon Jones+ (25) 22.0 1964 RAM
Deacon Jones+ (29) 22.0 1968 RAM
8 Coy Bacon (34) 21.5 1976 CIN
Deacon Jones+ (28) 21.5 1967 RAM
10 Chris Doleman+ (27) 21.0 1989 MIN
Reggie White+ (25) 21.0 1987 PHI
12 Aaron Donald (27) 20.5 2018 LAR
Jim Katcavage (28) 20.5 1963 NYG
Joe Klecko (27) 20.5 1981 NYJ
Lawrence Taylor+ (27) 20.5 1986 NYG
J.J. Watt (23) 20.5 2012 HOU
J.J. Watt (25) 20.5 2014 HOU
18 Mark Gastineau (24) 20.0 1981 NYJ
Harvey Martin (26) 20.0 1977 DAL
Derrick Thomas+ (23) 20.0 1990 KAN
DeMarcus Ware (26) 20.0 2008 DAL
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 7/12/2021.

We hope site users enjoy this new information and the fuller picture it paints for some of the greatest defensive players in NFL history. We will continue to print the official leaderboards since 1982 since we realized different users have different needs, but we hope this new data complements the official data and helps bring awareness to some forgotten players with little else in the way of statistical records. We have plans to continue to flesh out our historical defensive statistics for individual players, so stay tuned.

Turney and Webster would also like to make it clear that this was more than a two-person job. They would like to thank the many people who helped them gain access to valuable information, documents and film including Scott Grams, Brett Daniels, Ace Cacchiotti and the countless NFL PR directors who helped. They are grateful for the assistance.

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