The expansion of sack statistics from before the stat became official in 1982 has allowed the stellar 1978 season of former Detroit Lions star Al “Bubba” Baker to get the credit it deserves.
While pre-1982 sack numbers remain unofficial for league history purposes, the 23.0 sacks by Baker during his rookie season in Detroit would be the most in a single season in league history. Michael Strahan’s 22.5 sacks during the 2001 season is the official benchmark for most sacks in a single season.
Baker, in the Around the NFL podcast, said learning that his 23 sacks were being widely recognized by Pro-Football-Reference and other statisticians made him get rather emotional.
“For some reason, and I’m not kidding you, without any prompting, tears just started running down my eyes,” Baker said. “And my wife was inside, I opened up the patio doors. And my wife, first thing she said was, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I said, nothing’s wrong and I said come look at this. And, you know, we hugged and then I lost about an hour and a half, two hours. My daughter called. It was really emotional for my family. I guess at 6-foot-8, 290 pounds, that doesn’t sound really tough, but, we were all crying.
“You know somebody tells you you’re a sack leader and what do you do, you start crying. And I guess it’s because none of us really sat around like some players and, ‘We want this and we want that.’ We hadn’t thought about it for at least, for at least, I’m not kidding you, 20 years.”
Through research that has included play-by-play logs, game books, game footage and other sources, Pro-Football-Reference estimates it has 99 percent of the sacks from the 1970 AFL-NFL merger through the 1981 season accounted for, as well as about 95 percent of sacks in both the AFL and NFL from 1966 to 1969, and about 80 percent of sacks from 1961 to 1965. Pre-1960 sack statistics are more challenging to reliably compile.
That has allowed the performances of Baker, Deacon Jones, Jack Youngblood and other standout pass rushers to have their success on the field quantified reliably.
Baker was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1978 following his standout campaign. He was a three-time Pro Bowl selection and made the All-Pro team his rookie year. Baker finished his career with 131 sacks in 13 seasons played for the Lions, St. Louis Cardinals, Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings. The 131 sacks would put him 21st all-time.