Football 101: No. 20, Bruce Smith
OK, so you know the deal on the Football 101. Here’s the complete archive. Thanks for reading, and thanks for subscribing!
Reminder that from here on, we’ll have a new Football 101 essay every Wednesday throughout the NFL season, leading right up to Super Bowl Sunday. And if you want to track the countdown, Brilliant Reader Ed B put together this awesome spreadsheet.
In my mind, I’ve always associated Bruce Smith with baseball Hall of Famer Tim Raines. It’s a weird comparison, I know, but I look at this way: Raines was one of the great leadoff hitters in baseball history, but he spent an entire career being overshadowed by the best leadoff hitter in baseball history and all-time stolen base leader, Rickey Henderson.
Bruce Smith was one of the greatest defensive linemen in NFL history, but in my mind he spent much of his career being overshadowed by, surely, the best defensive end in football history, Reggie White.
The Raines-Henderson comparison is easy — Rickey clearly was the better player. But was Reggie White actually better than Bruce Smith? That’s tougher. It is Smith, not White, who ended up with the all-time sack record.
Most sacks (unofficial*)
Bruce Smith, 200
Reggie White, 198
Deacon Jones, 173.5
Kevin Greene, 160
Julius Peppers, 159.5
*I’m going with the “unofficial leaders” on most sacks so that we can count the great sackers pre-1980, when the sack became an official category.
By the way, Smith’s sack record will certainly not be broken anytime soon. The active sack leader is Von Miller, who is 33 years old and some 80 sacks behind Smith — and it might not be broken ever. Aaron Donald might have a shot at it if he decides to play until he’s 40, the way Bruce Smith did.
Still, I’ve asked a lot of people, and the near-unanimous consensus is that while Smith was great, White was even greater. I believe this did play a huge part in how Smith was viewed as a player. Everybody knew he was fantastic. But I’m not sure people fully appreciated just HOW fantastic.
White and Smith came into the NFL at the same time, 1985, even though White is about 18 months older. That’s because White played his first two season in the USFL. White took a pay cut to play for Philadelphia after the USFL collapsed. Smith, meanwhile, was the first overall pick of the 1985 draft, taken ahead of fellow Hall of Famers Chris Doleman and Jerry Rice.
That was a fascinating draft, actually. The Bills were entirely desperate. They had gone 2-14 the year before, and had not come even close to a Super Bowl in their history, and they found it super-hard to convince anyone to come play in Buffalo. Even Bruce Smith had no interest in coming. But the Bills just had to have him.
Of course they did. Smith was a remarkable athlete, recruited out of high school as a basketball player as well as football. He was so dominant as a defensive lineman at Virginia Tech that they simply called him “Sack Man.”
“He’s the best pass rusher I’ve ever seen,” Clemson coach Danny Ford said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more difficult man to block,” Wake Forest coach Al Groh said.
One wag who saw him play at Virginia Tech said that he hadn’t seen someone in Virginia move as fast as Bruce Smith since the day Lyndon Johnson told a Democratic mayor to get him a cup of coffee.
Yes, the Bills HAD to have him.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial