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Bill Lyon: Sack greats have come in all styles

Jason Babin is locked and loaded, flattened out in that quirky sprinter's crouch, a helmet-tipped missile ready for launch.

Jason Babin slams into Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, forcing him out of the game. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Jason Babin slams into Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, forcing him out of the game. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)Read more

Jason Babin is locked and loaded, flattened out in that quirky sprinter's crouch, a helmet-tipped missile ready for launch.

He appears to be positioned roughly two zip codes away from the ball, almost as though he is playing in another game, but then that is the very crux of the wide nine, the controversial defensive alignment that is, depending on your viewpoint, a stroke of blinding genius or of sheer idiocy.

What it has done is help transform a heretofore ordinary player into a quarterback-inhaling beast. Babin is quick. Hiccup-quick. Jackrabbit-quick. And the wide nine frees him to chase the quarterback, to the virtual exclusion of all else. The payoff is a statistic that didn't even exist until a generation ago: the sack.

Babin was basically a journeyman and nomad when the Eagles acquired him, and now he is a sack machine in the single-minded pursuit of the franchise record for kills in a season. With 18, he is three shy of Reggie White's total, amassed in 1987.

Babin's unorthodox style is a far cry from that of White, the ordained minister who would move from spot to spot along the line. Sometimes he would squat in a conventional three-point stance, in which he resembled a predator who has picked out his lunch, and other times he would stand straight up, and at 6-feet-6, 300 pounds, that was a daunting sight. Those who tried to block him said it was like facing a grizzly up on its hind legs.

Once the Rev had a blocker in his determined embrace he would begin to move him around like office furniture, as though the poor soul had casters on his feet rather than cleats. Having reached the quarterback he would pile-drive him, like drilling for oil, then lift him up, brush him off, and send him on his way with this benediction: "Jesus loves you."

He had a knack for saving a little something in reserve and then choosing exactly the right moment to unfurl it. The result was frequently game-changing.

Babin's forte, according to Jim Washburn, his guru and the man responsible for his transformation, is that lightning-bolt speed and a refusal to be blocked. He would crawl through a mile of concertina wire to get to the quarterback.

And to Babin's considerable credit, he shrugs off any attempted comparisons with White, and says, forcefully, that White and Clyde Simmons (19 sacks in 1992) have numbers that are unapproachable, and that they are "on another level." At any rate, there is more than one way to skin a quarterback.

Sacks did not become an official tracked statistic until 1982. Coaches will tell you a sack has the same value as a turnover, and some football historians think the best sacker of all time was Deacon Jones of the Los Angeles Rams' Fearsome Foursome.

He had the whole package - bull rush, arm over, swim, and in the days before it was outlawed, a forearm that, when swathed in layers of gauze, wetted, and allowed to harden, made for a lethal fungo bat.

There was also the head slap, leveled at the ear holes and, when properly executed, made it sound inside the helmet like a carillon gonging the bells of St. Mary's.

The next step in the evolution of licensed mayhem produced Lawrence of the Meadowlands. Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants was a hybrid, equal parts linebacker and defensive end and Terminator and RoboCop.

The field held no boundaries for him, and his closing speed was frightening. He played with absolute abandon, with a recklessness caught forever on tape as he fired up his teammates just before kickoff: "Gotta play like a pack of rabid dogs, baby." Cujo it is, then.

I have saved the best for last, the hands-down all-time most concussive hitter, the Bears' iconic middle linebacker, Dick Butkus, for whom the award for best collegiate linebacker is named and, full disclosure, my favorite player. He had a head like an anvil and his day was made if he had been able to, as he put it: "Plant somebody." He would come in high and rake his man like a paper shredder, and his fondest desire, he said, was to hit someone so hard his head came off.

Uh, you mean helmet, right, Dick? It's the helmet that comes off.

"Wuss . . . "