In our series of Football Fun Facts, we’ll learn the history of football lingo. This week’s Fun Fact: the origin of the term ‘sack’.
It’s often one of the most pivotal plays in a football game: a defender tackles the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage before the quarterback throws the ball, resulting in a “sack”. But how did we come up with that particular word?
“Sack” is a relatively new term in the NFL. In 1961, the NFL started keeping track of a team stat called “passers lost yardage”. Before then, tackling the passer behind the line of scrimmage was called ‘dumping the passer’ (or ‘dump’), or ’tackle the QB for a loss’. Individual defensive players did not get credit for a ‘sack’ until it became an official statistic in 1982.
The person most associated with originating the term ‘sack’ is Deacon Jones, the former Los Angeles Rams defensive end who is one of the greatest pass rushers in NFL history. The Hall of Famer died two years ago, but he will always be remembered as a terrific player and colorful character. He played his first 11 seasons with the Rams (1961-71), then two years for the Chargers (1972-73), and one season with the Redskins (1974). In a feature for NFL Films, this is what Jones said of coining the term ‘sack’.
“I gave it some thought and came up with the term ‘sack’, like, you know, you sack a city,” Jones told NFL Films. “You sack a city, you devastate it. And the word is so short you can even get Deacon in front of Jones in some headlines.”
Jones’ definition jibes with the Dictionary.com definition of ‘sack’ which is “to plunder and partially destroy” (verb) or “the plundering of a place by an army or mob, usually involving destruction, slaughter, etc.” (noun).
But others credit former Washington Redskins head coach George Allen with first using “sack”. According to Leo Roth of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, Jones heard Allen use the word in a motivational speech before a game against the Dallas Cowboys and quarterback Craig Morton.
Roth interviewed former Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy who was an assistant on Allen’s staff when Allen, Jones and the Redskins were taking on Morton and the Cowboys.
Levy told Roth: “George (Allen) was talking the night before the game in the team meeting about playing the Dallas Cowboys and their quarterback Craig Morton…But the night before the game, George goes, ‘Before we play those Dallas Cowboys, we’re going to take that Morton salt and pour him into a sack’. That was the inspiration for it.”
By the way, even though Deacon Jones retired several years before the ‘sack’ became an official statistic, the Pro Football Researchers Association reviewed Jones’ career and determined that he would have tallied 173 ½ sacks in his 14 seasons. That would be the third most in NFL history.
The official all-time NFL leader in sacks is defensive end Bruce Smith (Bills, Redskins) with 200. The late Reggie White (Eagles, Packers, Panthers) is second all-time with 198.
Former Cowboys defensive end/linebacker DeMarcus Ware is 14th on the all-time list with 127 career sacks.