It seems a given that either J.J. Watt or Aldon Smith will pass Michael Strahan’s single-season record of 22½ sacks. Both men have 19½ with two games to go. Strahan set the record in 2001, and many only remember the last sack — the one that gave him the record in the final regular-season game, the one on which Brett Favre fell down at his friend Strahan’s feet, debatably succumbing to history.
Few remember Reggie White’s sacks in the 1987 season; few acknowledge White’s accomplishment that year. It’s fair to argue, though, that White was more dominant in that strike-shortened season than any pass rusher has been in any season, even those years before 1982 when the league first recognized the sack as an official category. Deacon Jones will tell you he had 26 sacks in 1967, but that’s Deacon. He’ll tell you he once slew Godzilla, too. John Turney, who tracks historical stats through game reports and box scores, does not come up with the same figure Jones does, which takes us back to White and 1987 …
The Eagles were an up-and-coming team with an outstanding coaching staff (Wade Phillips and Jeff Fisher helped head coach Buddy Ryan with the defense). In the opener, Philadelphia was trailing Washington, 24-17, in the third quarter, with the Redskins driving deep into Eagles territory. Doug Williams dropped back six yards and before he could so much as cock his arm to throw the football White was all over him. The Minister of Defense blew by the Redskins right tackle and running back, engulfed Williams and stole the ball from his grasp. White raced 70 yards for the game-tying score.
That was Week One.
White picked up another 1½ sacks the following week before the strike put the season on ice for a month. It cost White three games from his finest NFL season, but he supported the Players Association’s cause as much as anyone, and later would lead the charge toward full-fledged free agency.
When play resumed at the end of October, White beat up Dallas’ Danny White for 2½ sacks. The following week’s victim was the Cardinals’ Neil Lomax (two sacks). “The ability the good Lord gave him, it’s unbelievable,” Ryan would later say.
Nothing could stop White that season. He sacked the Giants’ Jeff Rutledge three times; less than a month later, he sacked Rutledge’s teammate, Phil Simms, twice. White recorded sacks in 11-of-12 games and finished the campaign with 21, joining Mark Gastineau and Lawrence Taylor as the only men who had reached the 20-sack mark officially at that point. White was one sack shy of Gastineau’s record, but in another respect the Jets’ long-haired hotdog was miles away from White. Consider this: Gastineau averaged 1.375 sacks per start in 1984; Strahan’s record season was good for a 1.4 average; White averaged 1.75 sacks. Stretch his total out over a full 16-game season, and White would have amassed 28 sacks. Or, to be more exact, add White’s sack count from his last four games of 1986 or first four games of 1988 to make a full season. In either case he’d have more than 30 sacks for one string of 16 games.
Longtime Eagles beat writer Ray Didinger told Philly.com this year: “After that season, I’m not going to say it was old hat, but you just took for granted that he was great.”
White would go on to record 198.0 sacks in his 15 NFL seasons. That’s not the all-time record, though; Bruce Smith lasted 19 seasons, just long enough to reach 200.0. But White doesn’t need those records. Those who coached and watched him will testify he the best at what he did. White beat blockers on the edge and up the middle. He had power moves and speed moves, and could rip, swim and toss the best of them. In 1987, at the age of 25 (he turned 26 on Dec. 19 that year), he was at his very best, and no one before or since has been better. Sorry, Deacon, probably not even you.
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mikebeacom.