willie davis packers

Packers History: Due Diligence for the Pre-1982 Sack Leaders

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Thanks to extensive research from sources like the Pro Football Researchers Association, Pro Football Reference has unveiled a nearly-complete database of sack totals prior to the NFL’s recognition of the stat in 1982. Today, we’re looking back at those who now – albeit unofficially – rank among the Packers’ sack leaders.

On July 12, Pro Football Reference – in conjunction with the work of John Turney and Nick Webster of the Pro Football Researchers Association – announced they had compiled individual sack totals going back to 1960.

Though the numbers aren’t complete (PFR estimates they have 99% from 1970 to 1981, with lower amounts in earlier years), it does give us a better picture and a greater appreciation for the NFL’s great pass rushers in the pre-sack-as-an-official-stat era. Though the NFL has no plans for adding these figures to their official record books, we now have a greater appreciation for all-time greats like Deacon Jones, Jack Youngblood, Alan Page and Coy Bacon in what they accomplished in their distinguished careers.

Of course, this announcement also has a sizeable impact on the Green Bay Packers’ all-time sack totals. In fact, five individuals who played the majority of their careers prior to 1982 would rank in the team’s top 10 in career sacks.

So, we’re going to look back at those individuals and what they accomplished in their time in Green Bay. Some you’ll know immediately, while others are less recognizable.

Willie Davis (93.5 career sacks | Would Rank 1st in Team History)

Truly a great among the many greats of the Vince Lombardi Packers, Willie Davis possessed quickness off the edge that made him a nuisance for opposing quarterbacks. Yet, his effectiveness against the run created mismatches with opposing linemen and made him one of the league’s premier defensive ends.

“As a pass rusher, he was so quick off the ball,” said linebacker and fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer Dave Robinson. “He was a good run player, too. He was so strong in the chest, he could hit the tackle and control them. Throw them or drive them. He was weak in the legs, but his upper body was tremendously strong.”

One-time Packers defensive assistant and future Minnesota Vikings head coach Jerry Burns was so impressed by Davis that he called him “the greatest football player I’ve ever seen.”

That combination of speed and strength not only helped Davis compile a would-be team-best 93.5 career sacks, but also contributed to his 21 career fumble recoveries – which is an official team record. Additionally, Davis never missed a game in his 10 years with the Packers and served as a team captain from 1965 through 1969. His leadership eventually led him to a spot on the team’s board of directors and as a finalist to succeed NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle in the late 1980s.

Davis also had a knack for coming through in the biggest games. In the 1961 NFL Championship Game, the New York Giants tried three different players at tackle against him, but still could not contain the Grambling alum. His play was a big part in allowing Green Bay’s defense to hold New York to just 130 yards and force five turnovers in the 37-0 rout. Meanwhile, Davis had a team-high 1.5 sacks in Super Bowl I, then outdid himself by corralling Oakland QB Daryle Lamonica three times in Super Bowl II.

Ezra Johnson (82.0 career sacks | Would Rank 3rd in Team History)

A Packers Hall of Fame inductee, Ezra Johnson was one of several individual bright spots during the Packers’ dreary run through the 1970s and ‘80s. Hailing from tiny Morris Brown College, his 4.5-speed in the 40-yard dash impressed scouts enough that Green Bay picked him late in the first round of the 1977 NFL Draft.

After spending his rookie season behind fellow pass rusher Alden Roche, Johnson caught the league’s attention with 17.5 sacks in 1978, earning him a spot in the Pro Bowl and the team’s Defensive Player of the Year award at season’s end.

However, injuries and clashes with management hindered his production in future seasons. In 1979, he missed five games due to an injured ankle, but returned to the lineup in mid-November with a four-sack performance in the Packers’ 19-7 win over Minnesota.

The following year, Johnson was fined $1,000 by head coach Bart Starr for eating a hot dog on the sidelines late in a 38-0 preseason loss to the Broncos. While Starr returned the fine later in the season, Packers defensive line coach Fred von Appen resigned five days after the incident due to Starr’s refusal to suspend Johnson.

After temporarily losing his starting job in ’81, Johnson returned to form in ’82 and ’83 by combining for 20 sacks in 25 games between the two seasons. During Green Bay’s postseason run in the strike-shortened ’82 campaign, he posted 1.5 sacks in the Packers’ 41-16 win over the St. Louis Cardinals, then had a key fumble recovery in the team’s near upset at Dallas the following weekend.

More injuries – this time, a herniated disc – once again sapped Johnson’s effectiveness by the mid-1980s, relegating him to a pass rush specialist in the first two years of Forrest Gregg’s tenure as head coach before finishing out his NFL career in Indianapolis and Houston.

Lionel Aldridge (62.0 career sacks | Would Rank 6th in Team History)

Overshadowed during a good part of his career by Davis, Aldridge speed and agility played a big part in the Packers’ three-peat from 1965-67. However, despite being a bit undersized, his durability made him just as valuable, as he missed just three games in over eight seasons as a starter.

“Lionel was a little bit quicker than Willie (Davis), but Lionel was almost all quickness,” Robinson said of his former teammate. “He didn’t bull rush as much as Willie. Very smart. Real quick. His weakness was he could have used more weight. He was (really) 238, 239, 240. The linebacker, Lee Roy Caffey, was 250.”

Drafted in the fourth round in the ’63 NFL Draft, Aldridge earned the distinction of being the only player in the Lombardi era to start a season opener as a rookie. The Utah State alum showed promise early, including earning all-Western Conference honors from Sporting News following his second season in which he posted six sacks and five fumble recoveries. The following years, Aldridge recorded 10 sacks and 12.5 sacks as the Packers regained their championship form in ’65 and ’66, respectively.

However, what exemplified Aldridge’s durability was what happened during the 1967 preseason. After breaking a bone in his lower leg, he missed just two starts and played sparingly in a third before returning to action in a Week 4 win at Detroit.

His production continued to be steady after Lombardi’s departure, including a career-best 13.5-sack season in 1970. However, he would lose his starting job the following year and was eventually traded to the San Diego Chargers prior to the 1972 season. Upon retirement, Aldridge served as a radio analyst for WTMJ and a part-time color commentator for NBC’s TV broadcasts in the late 1970s.

Henry Jordan (52.0 career sacks | Would Rank 9th in Team History)

Henry Jordan was a defensive tackle ahead of his time. In an era predicated on gap control along the defensive line, Jordan used his quickness and balance – skills that helped him become a national champion wrestler in college – to become one of the NFL’s first great disruptive interior defensive linemen.

“He had the capacity to run around the block, which is a no-no,” said Bart Starr. “Yet he was so quick he could run around the blocker and still make the tackle.”

“(The Packers) have put together what seems to be man-for-man the perfect 4-3,” said quarterback Y.A. Tittle after the 1962 NFL Championship Game. “And the key to it all is one man, Henry Jordan. Where in all of football can you find a pass rusher at tackle like this man? You usually find them at ends. Henry Jordan is the best tackle in football – perhaps the best in the history of the NFL.”

Acquired in a trade from the Cleveland Browns in 1959, Jordan made up for his relatively light 248-pound frame with quick feet and the ability to create leverage at the point of attack. His ability to create mismatches on the interior line helped him earn five-straight All-Pro nods from 1960-64 in addition to Pro Bowl honors in three of those years plus 1966.

Jordan’s dominance was evident on multiple occasions in the biggest games. In the 1966 postseason, he notched 2.5 sacks in wins over Dallas in the NFL Championship Game and Kansas City in Super Bowl I, including a key hit on Len Dawson that resulted in Willie Wood’s game-changing interception. The following year, Jordan walloped eventual Pro Football Hall of Fame guard Tom Mack by recording 3.5 sacks in the Packers’ 28-7 NFL Divisional Round win over the Los Angeles Rams.

Clarence “Sweeny” Williams (49.0 career sacks | Would Rank 10th in Team History)

Acquired from Dallas in the trade that sent Herb Adderley to the Cowboys in 1970, Clarence Williams provided a pretty good return for the Packers.

An 11th round pick the prior year from Prairie View A&M, Williams became the de facto replacement for the recently-retired Willie Davis, as Robert Brown was moved to defensive end to tackle mid-way through the 1970 season to get Williams more playing time. From there, he would start 90 of the team’s next 91 regular season games.

Williams’ growth in the starting lineup would hit a new high in 1972, as he led the Packers with 10.5 sacks and played a key part in the opportunistic defense of the NFC Central title squad. During Green Bay’s division-clinching win at Minnesota in Week 13, Williams picked up three sacks and helped force four Viking turnovers.

Though the Packers never returned to their highs in ’72, Williams continued to produce along the defensive line. He led the team in sacks in both ’74 and ’75 and helped Green Bay’s defense rank among the top half in the NFL for most of the mid-70s. Additionally, he would serve as the team’s NFLPA player rep for most of that time.

However, by 1977, Williams would be replaced in the starting lineup by rookie Mike Butler and would be released during training camp in 1978, quietly ending his productive NFL career.

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