Thursday, February 11, 2021

All-Time Great Pass Rushers Bookend Their Careers with Sacks

By Nick Webster 

Marchetti (L) with the Texans and Atkins (R) with the Saints

Some players burst on the scene with a bang, others take time to learn and grow and improve, very few leave at the level of their height. Howie Long famously used the analogy of physical prowess being like an elevator that starts at the top of a building and descends, while football smarts start at the bottom and ascend.  

Somewhere in the middle, there’s a sweet spot where the athleticism-elevator is still sufficiently high and the mental-elevator has risen sufficiently that a player reaches his prime.

For two all-time great NFL pass rushers, they were able to announce who they were, respectively, on day one, and in the waning seconds of a great career.

Gino Starts with a Bang
Gino Marchetti was really born to be a pass rusher, big, strong, and quick he burst onto the league in 1952 with the erstwhile Dallas Texans. All the more odd is that he was such a natural pass rusher when in 1953 after the Texans dissolution the Colts tried him at O-Line.  

You might think this robbed him of a year of production at peak-physical prowess; but not so, Marchetti always credited that season and his attempts to block NFL caliber pass rushers with developing his pass-rushing IQ. But, Marchetti had played both ways in college at the famous University of San Francisco and was sufficiently refined they he burst on the NFL scene literally on day one.

On September 28th, 1952 in the Cotton Bowl before a sparse crowd the Dallas Texans would make their NFL debut; the more lasting debut that day, however, was Gino Marchetti.  

Following an opening kickoff return to the 37 yard-line of the New York Giants began attacking the Texans with a run off-tackle left. Setting a strong edge and turning the playback inside while making the tackle for a mere 2-yard gain is Gino Marchetti wearing what is now an unfamiliar #75.  

Welcome to the NFL Gino.
Marchetti lines up for his first NFL Play


Gino tackles the ball carrier for minimal gain on his first NFL play
On 2nd down and long Charlie Conerly and the Giants decide it is time for the opening pass of the 1952 season. Gino – in a stance that will become very familiar over the next dozen-plus seasons – lines up wide and angled in towards the QB.  

With a different uniform and a different uniform number, any astute NFL historian would immediately identify Gino on alignment and stance alone. And, as would also become familiar Gino was always the first off the ball. Only thanks to Bill Hewitt already owning the title was Gino not called “The Offsides Kid”.
Gino with the alignment and stance we all recognize


Not unlike Hall of Famer Bill Hewitt before him Gino looks like the “Offsides Kid”

A prominent feature of pass protection in the early ’50s was blocking the defensive end on the 5-man line with an offensive guard ‘flaring out’ from the center of the formation. One of the backs to the same side would either slip out for a screen, leaving the guard one-on-one with the DE, or would assist and ‘chip’ the DE for something approaching a double-team.  

This approach was reasonably suited for larger DEs who were less fleet of foot, as the guard could get to his spot. The tactic worked well also for undersized faster DE’s as the running back could handle them effectively. However, against Gino – and Len Ford and other physical marvels – the pass rush came too quickly for the guard to position himself and the Running Back simply could not manage the strength of the oncoming rusher.

The guard (boxed) cannot get out to reach Gino and the RB (circled) cannot handle the strong rush


Marchetti notches his first career Sack . . . on the opponents’ first drop-back
So, on the first drop-back that the Dallas Texans and Gino Marchetti have ever faced, Gino notches his first career Sack.  

If Pro Football Focus were around in 1952, they’d have his ‘Pass Rush Efficiency’ pegged at 100% at this point. An incomplete pass later and the Giants punt the ball back to the Texans who go three-and-out, followed by a punt of their own. In continuing to announce himself, on punt coverage Gino is among the crew who chase down Giants Tom Landry forcing a fumble on the return. The Texans recovery of this fumble leads to the first touchdown in Texans history.

Marchetti hits Landry on the punt return and the ball pops out, leading to a Texans touchdown
Over the remainder of the game young Gino notches two more sacks of 11 yards each to finish with 3 sacks for 29 yards and a series of tackles in the running game. The Texans post their first of many losses to come but a Hall of Fame career has begun with a bang . . . literally from the first series of his illustrious career Gino Marchetti was something special.

Atkins Finishes with a Flurry
Doug Atkins and Gino Marchetti were quasi-contemporaries. Gino debut with the Texans while Atkins did with the Browns just a year later in 1953; Gino retired in 1966 with the Colts and Atkins called it a career with the Saints in 1969. 

However, Gino was a 25-year-old rookie in 1952, having lost time to WWII and his effective retirement was in 1964; he was coaxed back to play just three games in 1966 when the Colts suffered serious injuries across their D-Line. And while Marchetti was a star from day-one, Doug Atkins took a little more grooming before he came into his own.

Atkins began his career under Paul Brown with the Browns in 1953 and learned under the great Len Ford.  However, Atkins was nicked up as a Rookie and played just 8 games, though he started all 8. In his second year, Atkins fell into Paul Brown’s doghouse and started just 3 games of the 12-game schedule, ceding time to a new rookie Carlton Massey.  

Brown, fed up with Atkins's lack of maturity parted ways with the large DE following this second season. In his third season, now with the Bears, Atkins played more and better than in either of his first two years starting 11 games and playing in all 12; Atkins notched a few sacks and began looking like a competent NFL starter. 

However, in 1956 Atkins was injured again and played in just 6 games starting one. It was not till 1957 that Atkins full potential began to show. He destroyed the Rams in their two tilts that season and, while the numbers may never be fully complete, he likely led the league in sacks that season. Atkins was now a dominant player and would make 7-straight Pro Bowls, before starting to cede playing time to younger players on the Bears roster in 1966.  

As 1966 ended it would have been reasonable to assume that Akins was done, he was 36 and clearly a step or two slower than in his prime. But, the league was expanding again, with the New Orleans Saints kicking off in 1967 and the Saints, unlike the Falcons a year prior, were willing to take on aging big-name players even a 37-year-old. 

But, as Howie Long has said, the mental elevator was reaching the top. In 1967 as a 37-year-old Atkins registered at least 8½ and perhaps as many as 10 sacks. In the official sack era (1982 to date) only four players have registered double-digit sacks . . . their names, Reggie White, Bruce Smith, Chris Doleman, and Julius Peppers, good company. 

In 1968 Atkins was even better notching 12½ sacks in the 14-game schedule at the age of 38, the highest such figure in the sack era was Bruce Smith with 9 at age 39 in a 16-game season. Atkins averaged .89 sacks per scheduled game, the Smith figure of 9 in a 16-game season is .56 per scheduled game meaning Atkins was 59% higher than Smith in sack per scheduled game. 

The baseball equivalent would have Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa or Barry Bonds surpass Roger Maris by hitting 97 Home Runs in the same length season.

But Atkins 1968 was even more impressive when you consider that he missed the last 3 games due to injury. His 12½ sacks in 11 games played prorates to an 18-sack season at age 38. Certainly, this was a great way to end a career; however, undeterred and confident in his abilities given his strong 1968, Atkins returned in 1969. 

As a 39-year-old in 1969 Atkins posted at least 8½ and possibly as many as 10½ sacks – remarkable. But Atkins performance was an even better bookend to Gino’s career.  

In the 14th and final game of his career, and in the final drive that the Saints defended, late in the 4th quarter with less than one minute left to play Atkins sacked Pittsburgh Steeler QB Dick Shiner for an 11-yard loss. 

Atkins only failed to achieve perfect symmetry with Gino by allowing three more passes on 2nd, 3rd, and 4th down to get off without again sacking Shiner; however, the 2nd and 21 hole, Atkins put the Steelers in essentially ended the drive, the Saints season, and Atkins career with a sack.
39-year old #81 Doug Atkins doesn’t get off the line like he used to

But Atkins is still a powerful force to deal with

Atkins delivers a shiner to kick off the final series of his career


Atkins – carried off after the culmination of a Hall of Fame career
Bruce Smith is officially the NFL’s all-time leading sacker and is likely to remain so for a while.  Bruce was an all-time great and a no-brainer first-ballot Hall of Famer, but when considering his pole-position consider:
  1.  JJ Watt’s unfortunate plague of injuries
  2.  Reggie White’s 1984 USFL season – Reggie is 2 sacks behind Bruce’s career figure despite   playing 1984 (and 1985) in the USFL, where he certainly would have logged 2 NFL sacks.
  3.  Gino Marchetti and Doug Atkins’s 12 and 14-game seasons
There is no answer as to who’s the fairest of them all, but the next time you’re arguing about pass rushers, don’t forget old Gino and Doug.

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