Is this the year for Marvin Harrison? Junior Seau? Or perhaps one of four eligible men from the Greatest Show on Turf?
06 Apr 2009
Guest column by Pete Palmer
Norm Willey was a pretty good football player. He played defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1950 to 1957, and was All-Pro in 1953, 1954 and 1955. Two-platoon football started in 1950; on offense, Norm caught only two passes in his career. He earned his nickname of "Wild Man" by being an aggressive defensive player. On October 26, 1952, in a game versus the New York Giants, Willey claimed to have sacked Charley Conerly and his replacement, Fred Benners, 17 times. This was a big factor in the outcome, as the Eagles won a close game 14-10. The two teams finished the season tied for second place at 7-5, one game behind the Browns.
Willey was born in Hastings, West Virginia on August 22, 1927. He is still alive, 81 years old. After high school in Pine Grove, West Virginia, he attended Marshall University. He was drafted in the 13th round by the Eagles in 1950, and became a regular right away. He stood 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighed 224 pounds, which was about average size for a defensive end in the '50s. (Today the average defensive end is 6-4 and 280 pounds.) He was inducted into the Marshall Hall of Fame in 2003, where he also played basketball. He was selected one of West Virginia's 50 greatest athletes by Sports Illustrated in 2000.
Sacks for defensive players were first recorded officially in 1982. However, some teams have tabulated unofficial data from play-by-play accounts back into the 1960s. The league counted a sack as a running play through 1946. For 1947 and 1948 they kept track of sacks separately, but did not publish the data, nor did they subtract it from total offense. Beginning in 1949, yards lost attempting to pass (YLAP) were kept for each game, published weekly and subtracted from yards passing, and the difference (net passing yards) was the official team total. In 1960, the AFL went back to the old way of counting sacks as rushes, but the official score sheets did indicate the number and yards lost. When the Elias Sports Bureau prepared the stats for the Total Football encyclopedia in 1998, they subtracted the sacks from rushing data for players, but did not adjust the team figures. In our Barnes & Noble ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia, we subtracted the sacks from both player and team data. Starting in 1961, the AFL kept track of sacks and yards by team on offense and defense. The NFL showed season team totals for defensive sacks in 1963 and began counting them in their weekly stats in 1964, to go along with the yards lost already kept.
Sacks against individual quarterbacks were not published until 1969. However, many teams have gone back into the play-by-plays and tallied up sacks for quarterbacks back to 1963 or 1964. Dallas and Minnesota have data back to their first seasons (1960 for the Cowboys, '61 for the Vikings).
So we do have sack yards on a game-by-game basis as far back as 1949. It turns out on that fateful day in 1952, the Giants lost 127 yards attempting to pass. This is by far the largest recorded total in league history. The next highest number was 109 yards (on 11 sacks) by the Detroit Lions against the Green Bay Packers on November 7, 1965. The average number of sack yards per game in the 1960s was about 22, compared to the current figure, which has held steady since 1991 of only 15 yards. No team has had more than 89 in a game since the Seahawks managed that in 1992 versus the Eagles.
Here's a list of the highest total sack yards in a single game:
|Most Sack Yards, Single Game, NFL History|
The Patriots had two 100-yard sack games in 1963, en route to a 626-yard season total with 66 sacks. Oakland set the all-time yards record in 1967 with 666. The AFL never published official team defensive stats for 1963, so the league does not recognize the Pats' mark, which is second highest.
There have been five known games with 12 or more sacks since 1964:
|12-Sack Games, 1964-2008|
In the 138 games known to have nine or more sacks, the average yards per sack was 7.18. The expected number of sacks for 127 yards would be 17.7, so Willey's claims looks legitimate. The New York Times story on the game mentions nothing about Conerly being tackled for losses, although they do show the 55 net passing yards. We know from the official NFL weekly stats that the Giants gained 182 gross yards through passes and lost 127 yards from sacks. The Philadelphia papers reported the 17 sacks, according to Ron Pollack, who did an interview with Willey in 1997, which was reprinted in the PFRA journal cited below. Willey then was a game-day worker for the Eagles. After a feature from NFL Films describing Willey's story, legendary football writer Paul Zimmerman chimed in with a piece in Sports Illustrated (August 28, 2000). It turns out that Zimmerman was at the game and kept a play-by-play. He counted Willey with "only" eight sacks and Pete Pihos with six, for a total for the team of 14, which would be records if sacks had been kept in those days. Pihos was a Hall-of-Famer who played both ways for the Eagles at end from 1947 through 1955, All-Pro every year but one and named to the Hall in 1970.
The official game records are seven by an individual (Derrick Thomas, Kansas City vs. Seattle, November 11, 1990) and 12 by a team (five times).
So it may be that Willey was quite accurate in the number of team sacks that day, but might not have remembered sharing the work with Pihos. Or perhaps Zimmerman misidentified the sacker in some cases. For more information on the subject, try searching for "Wild Man Willey and Charlie Conerly" on the Web. The PFRA journal (The Coffin Corner, edited by Bob Carroll) had a reprint of an excellent article on the subject which originally appeared in Pro Football Weekly. It is available here.
Pete Palmer is one of the original co-authors of The Hidden Game of Baseball and The Hidden Game of Football, and currently serves as one of the co-editors of the ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia.
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