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Pro Football Reference adds pre-1982 sacks to record, highlighting Buffalo Bills of yesteryear

Tom Sestak and “Gentle” Ben Williams get their due

The early years of professional football feature legendary players and tales of spectacular plays, but much of the record is apocryphal. Unlike professional baseball, which tracked detailed scorebooks almost from the beginning, football was not so fastidious. For instance, stats like quarterback hits and passes defended are commonplace now but only emerged in the 21st century. Even rudimentary information like “solo” tackles or fumbles didn’t enter the box score until the 1990s. For that reason, it’s hard to compare today’s players against the storied stars from 50 years ago, even with surface-level statistics.

Now, though, some of those former players will finally see a proper record of their greatness, thanks to an obsessive effort by John Turney and Nick Webster, two members of the Pro Football Research Association. Before the year 1982, the “sack” was not an officially-recorded statistic, and so we have not had a statistical record of the great pass rushers of yesteryear. As a blog post on football stats database pro-football-reference.com explains, Turney and Webster undertook a comprehensive review of records from the past to reconstruct official sack totals dating back to 1960. As a result, they claim that 99 percent of sacks from 1970 to 1981 are now recorded, as well as the vast majority of sacks from 1961 to 1969.

As a result, we now have a clearer picture of the great Buffalo Bills from the team’s earlier years. The biggest benefactor? Defensive tackle Tom Sestak. A three-time unanimous All-AFL selection, Sestak played for the Bills from 1962 to 1968. PFR’s record shows that Sestak racked up 52.0 sacks in his seven-year career, a total that ranks fifth on the franchise leaderboard. It’s also the franchise sack record for a defensive tackle, ahead of Kyle Williams’s 48.5 sacks.

Sestak also holds the record for single-season sacks by a Buffalo Bills DT with 15.5 in 1964. That’s the third-highest single-season total by any Bills player in history; Bruce Smith owns the record with 19.0 sacks in 1990, and Bryce Paup had 17.5 in 1995.

Another player to see his greatness recognized was “Gentle” Ben Williams, the defensive end who played ten seasons for the Bills from 1976 to 1985, and who also passed away in May of last year. As his Ole Miss obituary noted, when Williams retired from the NFL, he was Buffalo’s career sacks leader with 45.5 sacks. Further accounting has increased his total to 52.0 sacks, tied with Sestak for fifth.

One other important detail for Bills fans: Bruce Smith’s sack record remains intact. NFL legend Deacon Jones, the “Secretary of Defense,” was also the man who coined the term “sack.” He played from 1961 to 1974, meaning his entire career fell into the unofficial sack record. The research by Turney and Webster affirms that Jones had 173.5 sacks in his storied career, which remains in third place behind Smith and Reggie White.