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Sacco Sez: The history of the sack

One of the most exciting plays that can be made by a defensive player in the National Football League is the quarterback sack.

It slows down or stops a drive, costs the offense a play, riles up the crowd and potentially shakes up the nerves of the offensive linemen and quarterback, all at once.

And right now in pro football, there is nobody like Von Miller rushing the quarterback from the linebacker position.  Let's look at a little bit of history before getting back to Miller.

The concept of tackling the quarterback while he is attempting to pass is not new, but the quarterback sack did not become an official NFL statistic until 1982.  Therefore, the official history of the top sack producers in the NFL only begins at that point in the record books.

I well remember the discussions, and maybe an argument here and there, at the NFL public relations meetings in those days about the validity of adding another stat, with the ultimate verdict being that the sack was just too big a play to ignore, and is an easy one to track because in almost every case the player or players involved are very obvious.

As recently as 1960 one of the greatest players in history was still playing both ways, as Pro Football Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik was both a center and linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles.

But while "Concrete Charlie" was beginning a new decade by leading the Eagles to the 1960 NFL championship (the only championship game Vince Lombardi ever lost, by the way), in the decade of the 1950's Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Buster Ramsey was inventing the blitz. The Lions won three NFL titles in the 1950's with Ramsey and his defensive notions. Of course, Hall of Famers Bobby Layne and Doak Walker had a big part with those championships as well.

But regardless, the blitz became part of pro football in the 1950s and when the era of two-way payers ended with Connerly and defensive specialization began in earnest in the 1960's, the blitz grew in sophistication along with defensive play overall. David "Deacon" Jones always claimed he invented the term "sack" while starring for the Los Angeles Rams, for whom he played from 1961-73 on his way to the Hall of Fame. Whether or not it was true, who was going to argue with Deacon Jones?

Now back to the Broncos. The Broncos began to keep track of sacks in 1970, not coincidentally the first year of NFL play that included the merged American Football League, and hence the game we know today. But again, the use of the stat was not official until 1980, and by then Bronco fans had watched quarterbacks being chased by the likes of defensive tackle Bud McFadin (a truly great defensive tackle who was a tough, fair player), Hardy Brown (a safety who really liked to inflict pain and is often regarded as the dirtiest player in pro football history), Dave Costa (a fine tackle who was the first Bronco to have four sacks in one game, at Buffalo in 1970), and Richard "Tombstone" Jackson.

As recently as a few days ago a journalist who has covered the Broncos for three decades told me he still regards Jackson as one of the five best players in team history, so that should give one an idea of Jackson's dominance.  In fact, legendary pro football writer Paul Zimmerman, now sadly incapacitated physically but still on top of it mentally, listed Jackson on par with Deacon Jones in the first 50 years of pro football.

The Broncos' top 10 in quarterback sacks include players from before 1980 (Ring of Famer Paul Smith, who is ninth, and the very colorful Lyle Alzado, who is fifth), Ring of Famers Tom Jackson (tenth) and Karl Mecklenburg, who is second and remains a candidate for the Hall of Fame. Mecklenburg had four sacks in one game at Pittsburgh in 1985, and I sat next to Paul Zimmerman in that contest.  Meck played seven different positions against the Steelers that day and Zimmerman told me it was one of the greatest defensive performances he had ever seen.  That was one of two four-sack games for Mecklenburg, the only Bronco to reach that single game total twice.

The team's all-time sack leader is Simon Fletcher, who will be inducted into the Ring of Fame when the Broncos host the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football later this year. That will be perfect for Fletch, as he always shined brightest in big names, even though his personality off the field is so much more calm and relaxed. Fletch had 97.5 quarterback sacks playing for the Broncos rom 1985-95, had four in a game once at San Diego in 1990, and has three of the top seven season sack totals in Denver history (he had 16 in 1992 and 13.5 in both 1991 and 1993).

But the season high for Denver is 18.5 by Von Miller in 2012, and Miller also had the fourth-best total with 14 in 2014.

There is an old saying, "Let the big dog eat," that refers to putting top players in position to make big plays. There is no question that Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips does that for Denver, and Miller is without a doubt getting after it like no one else. His five sacks through three games leads the NFL.

He earned Most Valuable Player honors in Super Bowl 50 for his brilliant play in Santa Clara, but that was by no means a solitary effort. The best definition of a great player, as told to me by an Oakland Raiders' scout many years ago, is, "A great player is a player who makes great plays that win the game.  Winning the game is the key part of the play." It is safe to say that is exactly what Von Miller has been doing as he runs roughshod through the Broncos' record book in pursuit of the opposing quarterbacks. He is a four-time Pro Bowler whose 60 career sacks through his first five seasons represent the sixth most in NFL history since the league started keeping track officially in 1980.

This Bronco defense is making its mark, by statistics, wins and championships, as one of the great units on either side of the ball in franchise history, and Von Miller is its sack master.

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