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06 Apr 2009

Every Stat Tells A Story: Wild Man Willey

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
Date Defense Opponent Sacks Yards
10/26/1952 PHI NYG ? 127
11/7/1965 DET GB 11 109
11/20/1960 CHI DET ? 107
12/17/1961 CHI MIN 9 104
10/20/1963 LA MIN 6 102
11/22/1964 BAL LA 11 102
10/28/1984 CHI MIN 11 101
9/22/1963 BOS OAK 11 100
12/8/1963 BOS HOU 9 100
12/16/1984 CHI DET 12 100

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
Date Defense Opponent Sacks Yards
11/20/1966 DAL PIT 12 77
10/26/1980 STL BAL 12 73
12/16/1984 CHI DET 12 100
9/29/1985 DAL HOU 12 82
9/30/2007 NYG PHI 12 62

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.

Whether you have a story to tell about an interesting stat from football's past, or a unique insight on the stats and players of football's present, the offseason is the best time to consider submitting a guest column to Football Outsiders. Simply e-mail your idea or rough draft to info-at-footballoutsiders.com.

Posted by: Guest on 06 Apr 2009

24 comments, Last at 29 Jan 2013, 3:11am by asien resa


by Theo :: Mon, 04/06/2009 - 11:28am

Offcourse the comments start with a nitpick:

"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"

uhm.. in the table it is the other way around. The highest lost yards were by the Packers with the Lions as defense.
I understand that the Lions suck for a real long time now, but they don't deserve this.

Cool column though.
Maybe Wil Man Willey also counted the times he tackled the QB on a QB keep or QB run - not uncommon in those days.

by B :: Mon, 04/06/2009 - 11:30am

Is it just me, or would yards lost per sack or total yards lost be a more useful measure than just the number of sacks? After all, getting sacked for an eight yard loss is much worse than losing just one yard.

by cbirkemeier :: Mon, 04/06/2009 - 11:43am

Maybe in your example, but if you're comparing an 8-yard sack and a 4-yard, I would disagree. While the 8-yard sack hurts the offense more than a 4-yarder, both set back the offense into down-and-distance situations where they are unlikely to get a first down. Yards lost per sack would be useful in addition to sacks, but not necessarily more than.

by piratefreedom (not verified) :: Mon, 04/06/2009 - 11:46am

Loss of down

by Dan :: Mon, 04/06/2009 - 1:03pm

If the average play gains around 4 yards, then something like Sack Yards + 4 x Sacks would be a pretty good measure of the value of sacks. (Although that doesn't include the value of fumbles forced on sacks.)

by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Mon, 04/06/2009 - 5:56pm

Tough to say. A 1-yard sack on 3rd down is pretty much equally important to a 5-yard sack, but a 1-yard sack on 1st down is definitely worth less than a 5-yard sack on 1st down.

by Tom Gower :: Mon, 04/06/2009 - 12:21pm

For those interested, the Dr. Z piece mentioned can be read at the SI Vault.

I hope I'm not the only one who got a headache from the paragraph on the quality of historical (pre-1982) sack data.

by lucas (not verified) :: Mon, 04/06/2009 - 12:50pm

...an those who were doing the sacking have now been sacked... monty python anyone!

by RugbyRuss (not verified) :: Mon, 04/06/2009 - 12:55pm

"No team has had more than 89 in a game since the Seahawks managed that in 1992 versus the Eagles. "

Ah yes, the 1992 Seahawks. Defensive Player of the Year Cortez Kennedy led an incredible defense. Pity the offense, led at times by Kelly Stouffer, Dan McGwire and Stan Gelbaugh, sucked so bad that the record was 2-14. Yes, despite the sacks and yardage, they lost that game against the Eagles 20-17.

*shakes head and thanks the powers that season in hell is over*

by andrew :: Mon, 04/06/2009 - 1:05pm

Wonder what the record is for the longest sack in NFL history... I remember a few years ago Eli Manning losing 26 yards on a sack...

Fran Tarkenton (who took some ridiculous sacks early in his career trying to prolong plays (but often as not making something positive) recalled in an interview that the worst he could remember was one by Eddie LeBaron, but no yardage was listed...

Bob Greise was sacked for 29 yards by Bob Lilly in a superbowl, but that wouldn't count for regular season records...

by Independent George :: Mon, 04/06/2009 - 2:11pm

Doesn't a backwards pass get scored as a sack/fumble? How far did Aaron Brooks' infamous play go?

by Travis :: Mon, 04/06/2009 - 4:08pm

Officially, the Aaron Brooks play was a run for -25, not a sack.

by Chris (not verified) :: Mon, 04/06/2009 - 1:46pm

Mike conVICT probably has a lot of sack lost yards with him running around the backfield trying to do his best Fran Tarkenton impression ( although not being a good quarterback).

by andrew :: Mon, 04/06/2009 - 2:00pm

Purely on-field wise...

Vick and Tarkenton were nothing alike. Vick is faster than Tarkenton ever was, and has a much stronger arm. He was a runner.

Tark was not a runner. He was a scrambler. He ran around to keep the play alive until he could find someone to throw to. In his career he had like 3000-some yards rushing, but if they ever did a "horizontal yards" line on him he'd have far more than his vertical yards. Vick could throw on the run but his elusiveness was of an entirely different sort.

I'm not even sure the Tark type of scrambling could work today, defensive linemen are faster, in part because of what he was able to do to them. He'd do these loops and sharp turns at close quarters, sometimes within arms reach of the guy he was avoiding but going away from his momentum, I think rushers today would be able to turn and grab him...

by Travis :: Mon, 04/06/2009 - 7:15pm

Some 30+ yard sacks in pro football:

34 yards: AFL2 game between the Florida Firecats and Memphis Xplorers in 2004. Up by 2 with 9 seconds left, the Florida quarterback was supposed to waste as much time as possible then throw the ball away, but but forgot.

34 yards: USFL game between the New Jersey Generals and Baltimore Stars in 1985. From the New York Times recap:

"On fourth down at the Stars' 13- yard line, Flutie went back to throw a pass. Under a heavy rush, he kept moving farther and farther back, giving ground to borrow time. Finally, John Walker, the Stars' defensive end and a relentless pursuer, pinned him to the ground for a prodigious loss of 34 yards."

34 yards: Falcons-Jets preseason game in 2001. Michael Vick was sacked 16 yards behind the line of scrimmage, fumbled, and the fumble was recovered 18 yards further back.

by Bobman :: Tue, 04/07/2009 - 2:30am

Nice work! I have often wondered (as I assume a few others in FOville have) why plays like Flutie's do not happen more often at the very ends of games/halves. If the clock is "just right" and the offense is intent on killing it but the D has enough timeouts to "force" a final punt, why punt with 10 seconds left and risk a return or a return and one Hail Mary? Just have your QB (or a burly RB) scramble around crazily to kill the clock.

I hate punting... and punters. Yeah, you hear that, Mike Scifres? I'm talking to you, you freakin' jerk-face.

Guess I'm still bitter.

by KyleW :: Tue, 04/07/2009 - 5:35am

The only reason I can think of against it is the potential injury risk.

No coach would ever be able to live down having his star QB injured on a play where he told him to run around and take a sack. The solution for this would be to use a burly RB like you suggested but I doubt that, say, Brandon Jacobs is that elusive while running backwards.

by Travis :: Tue, 04/07/2009 - 8:19am

No coach would ever be able to live down having his star QB injured on a play where he told him to run around and take a sack.

This has happened at least once, to Notre Dame during the 1998 season. Up 39-34 against LSU with 9 seconds left, Notre Dame (then coached by Bob Davie) decided to try and run out the remaining time. From an interview with then-QB Jarious Jackson:

Jackson: "There were nine seconds left in the game, the second-last game of the season. I'm trying just to drop back, run around the end zone to use up time and take the safety to kick the ball off to them so they'd have a long field. Autry Denson, a running back ..., was supposed to be blocking out from my left, but he was facing inside to the right. A guy rushed off the end and my MCL popped."

Q: Notre Dame could have gone 10-1 that year and played in a major bowl game, but the Irish lost 10-0 to 7-4 USC in the final game and your two replacements, Arnaz Battle and Eric Chappel, were brutal.

Jackson: "They combined for eight turnovers."

by DrewTS (not verified) :: Tue, 04/07/2009 - 11:40am

The other main reason would be that it could backfire if all the time isn't used up. I can see doing this to kill 2 or 3 seconds, but not 10. If the QB doesn't use up all the time and takes a big loss, your opponent has a chance to kick a potentail game-winning FG. (I'm assuming the game is close enough for that to matter. If it wasn't, you'd just punt it.)

by Sophandros :: Tue, 04/07/2009 - 2:18pm

I think that long sacks like the one that happened to Vick would be the predominant reasons for the large loss of yards in individual sacks.

Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

by Jacob Stevens (not verified) :: Tue, 04/07/2009 - 12:15pm

I could believe that Dr. Z could be off by a sack or three, in total or in attribution, but that's pretty much it. Willey's obviously got the vested interest in the claim he makes, and even Dr. Z I expect would have LOVED to prop up an old timer who accomplished something none of the guys today even sniffed.

He tallied 14, the Philly papers put down 17, the truth is most likely somewhere within those two figures. He gave Willey 8 sacks, Pihos 6; to me that would make it extremely unlikely that Willey actually notched double digit sacks individually.

by Sophandros :: Tue, 04/07/2009 - 2:20pm

More importantly, why don't they have player photographs like the one above anymore?

Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

by Still Alive (not verified) :: Wed, 04/08/2009 - 5:55pm


by asien resa (not verified) :: Tue, 01/29/2013 - 3:11am

It's difficult to find knowledgeable people on this topic, but you seem like you know what you're talking
about! Thanks