Looking back to the 1978 NFL Draft you will see a lot of great names, Hall of Fame names—Earl Campbell, James Lofton, Ozzie Newsome, and other All-Pros.
A couple of them were on Hall of Fame career paths for a while but didn't seem to sustain it. But nonetheless, they were great players, both played the same position but in deferent ways in different schemes in an era when the difference between a 3-4 and a 4-3 mattered.
Art Still was the second overall pick of the 1978 draft and Al "Bubba" Baker didn't go until the second round (40th overall). To think some team could have taken him rather than some of the busts in the first round is kind of mind-boggling, but hindsight being 20/20, it's easy to be too harsh.
Both Still and Baker were All-Rookie in 1978 but Baker was far more. he was a consensus All-Pro, unofficially led the NFL with 23 sacks, and was the NFL defensive rookie of the Year and the NFLPA NFC Defensive lineman of the Year among other accolades.
He played for defensive line coach Floyd Peters who allowed him and the rest of the Lions front to play old-school get-up-the-field rush the passer-first defensive line play. Play the run on the way to the pass, get after the passer, and if run "shows" make the tackle. Disturption, chaos, penetration, and all that will stop the run as well as reading the defense and then getting after the passer.
Still had to play a 3-4. A two-gap style—land on the blocker, read the flow, if it goes to your left, play that gap, if it flows away, play the right gap. And as you do that if pass "shows" get then rush the quarterback. A different philosophy.
In 1979 Baker racked up another 16 sacks and Still caught the notice of Paul Zimmerman who picked him for his Sports Illustrated All-Pro team.
The next year both were stars, Still had 14½ sacks and it was his turn to be a consensus First-team All-Pro and baker had 17½ sacks to tied for the NFL lead with Gary Johnson and put his three-year NFL total to 56½. As Baker once said, "When you arrived at the quarterback, you wanted to arrive in a bad mood."
Baker and Still both had exceptionally long arms and could keep tackles away from their bodies. Baker have a huge first step and had good strength (as did still) and a good counter to the upfield rush. He had a grab and throw and an inside spin which he learned from his basketball days.
Both were on the aforementioned HOF path through three seasons.
Then came 1981. Baker got hurt and missed five games as did Still. Still had little production but the Chiefs were beginning to win (9-7 in 1981 and 8-8 in 1980 up for 4-12 in ) and the Lions were also flirting with success (9-7 in 1980 and 8-8 in 1981) which is good compared to the combine 8-20 their teams were in 1977—the year before they took their stud lineamen in the draft.
Next was the strike season of 1982 and both were pretty good, but they were not getting the notice they did in previous seasons.
In 1983 Baker was traded to rejoin his old coach, Floyd Peters in St. Louis who was the defensive coordinator there. Baker was swapped for Mike Dawson (a former #1 pick) and a third-round pick. It's hard to determine what Dawson's value was at that time but a reasonable guess would be a third-rounder of sp, roughly meaning that the Lions got a late second-round pick in value (when the total package is combined) for Baker.
A few years previous, in 1980, Baker held out and missed the season opener because he was unhappy with his contract. The following year he had a shouting match with head coach MonteClark on an airplane and it continued onto the tarmac (which Baker denied was any kind of 'big deal'). In 1982 Baker missed a playoff game due to a foot injury the Lions brass didn't think was serious enough to miss a game of that magnitude, so the ice was getting thinner and thinner in Detroit for Bubba.
In St. Louis, Baker had to move to left defensive end since they had a fine right end, Curtis Greer, who really didn't project to the left side. Baker, of the two, more so possessed the skills to do it, though it was not his natural position, the so-called blind-slide rush spot he'd been so dominant in Detroit.
But in St. Louis, he had Peters and Jim Hanifan, who Baker was more comfortable with. Peters said "Monte (Clark) was more of a conformist and tried to make Bubba conform. Jim lets al be Al . . . Al's a good kid, he's just different".
Still, in 1983, went on a fruit, nut, and berry diet which dropped his took his usual 6-7, 260-pound frame to 238 pounds and had an off-season drawing raised eyebrows from his coaches and questions from the media and fans. It looked like, from the outside, that Still was a flake, completing the old "bowl of granola" joke.
|Al Baker with Cardinals|
Apparently with his lesson learned, Still recovered to have a great 1984 season after gaining back the weight to return to his 1980 form,—being impossible to knock off his feet, rushing the passer well, and being called by some the best all-around defensive end in the game (though Howie Long's coaches and many in the media and many scouts may have had something to say about that).
The Kansas City Star did an article mid-season in 1984 with a quote for an AFC defensive line coach that said, "Still is the best. He does everything, the complete game. He makes tackles he should even be around. An offensive line coach said, "I cannot believe some of the things he's doing against the run. There isn't a defensive end alive who plays the run better than he does. I also think the presence of Bill Mass is making him one of the better pass rushers in the league as well.
What the coach was likely referring to was the pursuit Still showed on run plays. He was excellent at run plays at him and to the left, the outside gap. But if the flow was "away" he'd take the inside gap and pursue and make plays down the line with his long strides and make tackles where most backside ends in a 3-4 scheme didn't. That's one of the things that make Still unique.
Still didn't beat out Mark Gastineau or Long for consensus All-Pro was named to Joel Buchbaum's 1986 All-Pro team for Gannett News Services and was Second-team All-Pro in the Associated Press poll.
Baker has his usual solid year—1985 was his "down" season and Still joined him. Both rebounded in the stats departments in 1986 but both were about to move on.
Still once again made Joel Buchbaum's 1986 GNS All-Pro team and was a Pro Bowl alternate and Baker register double-digit sacks for the sixth time.
Baker was traded to the Browns (for a fifth-round pick) in 1987. Baker did sign a contract to play for the Cardinals in 1987 but didn't get the incentive clauses he wanted and wanted out and the Browns desperately needed a pass rush. Baker said, "By the time the Cardinals get to where they are needing to go, I will be an old man". The Browns, having lost in the 1986 AFC Championship Game were on the verge of a Super Bowl, they thought, and Baker might be the missing piece according to Marty Schottenheimer.
|Al Baker with Browns|
He ended up as a designated rusher, rather than a starter, for the Browns in 1987 and then did the same for the Vikings (under Peters) in 1988 where he signed as a free agent (the contract he signed in 1987 was only a one-year deal making him a free agent in 1988)He returned to the Browns in 1989 as a Plan B free agent and was a starter in 1989 and in 1990 until an injury cost him the last seven games in 1990.
After 1987, Still had some disagreements with his head coach Frank Gansz who didn't think Still was a strong practice player, which was more or less true. However, his old Chiefs defensive coach, Walt Corey (now in Buffalo) while acknowledging the premise said that if Still practice how he played all "he wouldn't be able to play on Sundays" insinuating that Still's all-out still all week would leave him spent and hurt.
|Art Still with Bills|
So, Still was traded to the Bills in 1988 for a net fifth-round pick (and a swap of eighth-rounders). That year with the Bills he had a very good season on a very, very good Bills defense on a 12-4 Bills team. In 1989 he was still doing his thing against the run but just was not getting any push against the pass and the Bills had a younger, quicker guy in the wings who was ready to play Leon Seals who had four sacks in spot duty in 1989 and started four games in 1988 for the suspended Bruce Smith.
So, after coming out of college smoking these two players leveled off and then ended quietly in terms of honors and stats though both were with contenders at the end of their careers.
We always enjoyed them, because they were, in their prime, fun to watch in their differing skill sets but also they gave great interviews.
Both were highly intelligent men and were hilarious. They could make you laugh when they did interviews during their careers and even during the NFL talk radio boom of the 1990s and 2000s after they had been out of the game for years.
So, Still the two-gapper, Baker the one-gapper, for a while, respectively, each of them were about as good as anyone could be at those skills. And that is saying a lot.