The NFL’s highest paid stars are quarterbacks. So it makes sense that the second most valuable players are the guys who terrorize quarterbacks, the smash mouth defenders capable of pushing an offense backwards. But before guys could make big bucks for manhandling quarterbacks, the NFL had to define and measure that valuable skill. It took longer than you’d think.
American football began as a college sport in the late 19th century, with a variety of rule sets. Some focused on kicking a ball through a goal like soccer, others were built around carrying the ball like rugby. But what basically all versions of football had in common was chaos: large, violent mobs of men pushing and grappling to try to advance the ball downfield. You know, just guys being dudes.
But around 1880, a dapper gentleman named Walter Camp proposed rule changes that would shape the game you now recognize as football. Camp’s version of the game organized the mobs, smaller ones than before, on either side of an ever-changing line of scrimmage, a temporary barrier that neither team could cross until the play began. The play started when a player snapped the ball, first by kicking, but eventually with the hands, to a player designated as the quarterback.
By 1920, when the league that would eventually become the NFL formed, the game wasn’t all that different from the one we’re still watching a century later. And the game still hinged on the line. As soon as that line of scrimmage was drawn, defenses were concocting ways to bust through it and bury the guy with the ball. They called this “dumping” the quarterback. Made sense. You ran right up to the guy with the ball and dumped him on his ass.
Dumping the QB was a distinct and important event in any game, but leagues didn’t bother to track it. A team or a player might keep count as a matter of pride, but you wouldn’t find it on any stat sheet. By the ‘60s, the NFL recorded instances of quarterbacks losing yardage, but not the player who made that happen. Before that would happen, the dump would need some PR, but first a name change.
There are a few potential origins for the term “sack.” It is, after all, a pretty obvious metaphor, just like the Visigoths sacking Rome, linebackers topple the quarterback. But that’s not what Washington coach George Allen meant when he used the term in the early ‘70s. According to assistant coach Marv Levy, Allen was game planning for Dallas Cowboys quarterback Craig Morton, and vowed to “take that Morton salt and pour him into a sack.” Classic ‘70s smack.
Morton later sued the NFL for failing to protect players from head injuries. The case made the league see the error in their ways, and now they do a great job with player safety.
Anyway, the man who most famously drew the parallel between tackling a quarterback for a loss and pillaging a city was Deacon Jones, a man who terrorized QBs and really anyone who stood in his way. Jones haunted quarterbacks in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and claimed to have developed the term “sacking.” Said Deacon: “Sacking a quarterback is just like you devastate a city or you cream a multitude of people. I mean it’s just like you put all the offensive players in one bag and I just take a baseball bat and beat on the bag.”
America picked up on the word, and you can find references to “sacking” the quarterback popping up in newspapers around the late ‘60s, before George Allen supposedly coined the term for use in his salt related smack talk. But the NFL still wasn’t recording the statistic. Sack artists like Jones and his similarly destructive Rams teammate Coy Bacon had to keep track themselves.
The Rams’ “Fearsome Foursome” was one in a long line of nicknamed defenses that popped up in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Defense was becoming marketable, with the sack as its signature move. And sacks were becoming bankable, too. A new crop of defensive stars like Lawrence Taylor were getting contract incentives based on the number of sacks they recorded.
So finally, before the ‘82 season, the NFL decided to begin logging sacks. The first “sacks” registered by individual players happened on September 12, 1982. You’d need play-by-play data to say which one was first, but I can tell you LT had one that day. Jack Youngblood had one. Houston’s Jesse Baker and Cleveland’s Chip Banks each had 3.
The real pioneers of the sack came long before, the players who took up “dumping” the quarterback as soon as the line of scrimmage was invented and the defensive stars whose individual efforts went undocumented.
But technically, officially speaking, the guys who sacked quarterbacks on September 12, 1982 were the first to do it. So there you go.