It all depends what you prefer as a consumer of this sport, right?
A showboating playmaker in the secondary. A tackling machine serving as the heartbeat of a defense. A pass rusher who’s batting around the quarterback all game. Maybe it’s raw toughness you seek, a badass like Ronnie Lott who’ll chop off his pinkie finger to keep playing.
There are many candidates: Reggie White, Lawrence Taylor, Dick Butkus, Deion Sanders, Deacon Jones, Mean Joe Greene, Ray Lewis, even Aaron Donald deserves to be on a short list at this point. And Buffalo Bills legend Bruce Smith — who has sacked more quarterbacks than anyone in NFL history — warrants a seat at the table. Nobody may ever touch his 200-sack mark, and let’s not forget he did all of his damage in a 3-4 scheme.
We had a Q&A with Smith here soon after launching and, this week, I added that conversation to the podcast feed. That audio is available on Apple and Spotify and the player embedded below. With July 4th around the corner, Smith’s wild stories about visiting troops in Iraq is worth revisiting. Once overseas, he thought he was under attack and Smith hit the deck.
When it came to football? His legacy? Bruce Smith will make you think…
“When we say that body of work, it wasn’t over four, five years or eight or nine years. We’re talking about a 19-year body of work. Nineteen years in a 3-4 defensive scheme, where when you put your hand in the dirt, that’s a man’s world. No disrespect to the wide receivers, to the defensive backs, running backs but when you play on the defensive line, that is a man’s world.“How do I want to be remembered? This is not gloating or boasting or bragging. It’s just stating it: The all-time sack leader. More tackles in NFL history than any other defensive linemen who ever played in the game. So that body of work speaks for itself and I can leave it at that.”
“When we say that body of work, it wasn’t over four, five years or eight or nine years. We’re talking about a 19-year body of work. Nineteen years in a 3-4 defensive scheme, where when you put your hand in the dirt, that’s a man’s world. No disrespect to the wide receivers, to the defensive backs, running backs but when you play on the defensive line, that is a man’s world.
“How do I want to be remembered? This is not gloating or boasting or bragging. It’s just stating it: The all-time sack leader. More tackles in NFL history than any other defensive linemen who ever played in the game. So that body of work speaks for itself and I can leave it at that.”
Nor did Smith have the benefit of a dangerous pass rusher on the other side.
“You have to throw Reggie out there. Reggie had Clyde Simmons and Sean Jones. They both had over 110 sacks. I think Clyde had 113 and Sean Jones had 121. The closest I had was Phil Hansen who had 60.“In a 3-4 defensive line, you’re known for making tackles. In a 4-3, you’re known for making sacks. But to have that combination of being able to do both speaks for itself.”
“You have to throw Reggie out there. Reggie had Clyde Simmons and Sean Jones. They both had over 110 sacks. I think Clyde had 113 and Sean Jones had 121. The closest I had was Phil Hansen who had 60.
“In a 3-4 defensive line, you’re known for making tackles. In a 4-3, you’re known for making sacks. But to have that combination of being able to do both speaks for itself.”
And his style of play?
“Totally and completely different than any other in that era. Leverage. Speed. Athleticism. Power. Agility. And I got a lot of those athletic qualities from playing basketball and having balance. And even though I was a bigger man, when I lost all of that weight, it provided me with endurance. Once I did that, that’s when I became a player who could play for a whole game and then when I put it together — the football IQ of being able to break down the strengths and weaknesses of an offensive lineman and then when I learned the tendencies of certain offenses when they lined up in certain formations from Chuck Lester and Ted Cottrell — that’s when that light switch went off and, as they say, the rest is history.”
The Buffalo Bills fans reading may have a Bruce Smith story or two to share. There’s a case to be made.
The vote here? Reggie White. He won defensive player of the year 11 years apart for two different teams, all while averaging an all-time best 0.85 sacks per game for his career. That’s nuts. His dominance was unparalleled and his willingness to play in Green Bay — the NFL’s Siberia at the advent of free agency — helped change the Packers franchise forever.
Let your voice be heard below. Thanks, everyone.
Who is the greatest pass rusher, or who is the greatest defensive player? Reggie White faced many more old school Fullbacks after he got passed the Tackle, and they both got chipped by Tight Ends who could block. The game was changing. Western Carolina’s Clyde Simmons became Clyde because of Reggie White. Reggie could beat the blockers at the lOS, beat the fullback and create more pressure than anybody. Reggie’s 4-3 scheme does not matter. Reggie played the run better, Reggie played every down with a better motor. Reggie was the best defensive player I saw, then Lawrence Taylor. If Buffalo played the 3-4 like Tampa Bay we would not speak of Bruce Smith, he refused to play the scheme. If Lee Roy Selmon played Buffalo’s undisciplined rogue 3-4 defensive end, then we might have to speak of Lee Roy, but Lee Roy didn’t freelance and did not quit on run plays late in his career. Lee Roy did not push up the field creating gaping seams, on obvious run down plays. I would love to study Deacon Jones, but I know from a few games that he might be the best. Alan Page and Bruce Smith both were great players early in their career, but they did not play the run as well later in their career.
It's incredibly difficult to make a case for any player because of different era and different rules and how they were enforced. Deacon Jones was famous for his head slap move which essentially gave the opposing player a concussion. There's a famous clip of Vince Lombardi stalking the sidelines saying, "Grab, Grab, Grab".... What he would be saying now I can only guess.
Older players (there are fewer and fewer around) have stated that what passes for football now has little similarity to what was played before.
I've heard Bruce Smith speak of him being number one and using the sack number as his justification. The sack was not counted in the NFL as a measurement until.1982. Using this as THE measuring stick does a a disservice for the players who went before.
Everything that I've heard is that Lawrence Taylor was a beast who changed the Linebacker Position. Reggie White's hump move was a thing of beauty. I remember sitting in the stands watching him taking over a game shortly after he signed with the Packers... They were playing Denver. Denver with Elway were attempting to make a come back. And White sacked him. Twice. In a Row.
Amazing. I said to myself... this is why he's worth the money. To dominate a game in such a fashion.
Bruce Smith was an excellent player. But, but by my figuring, he wasn't as good as White. And I know that I'm biased.
The case for the best player on the offensive side of the football is even more difficult. Who was better, Favre or Rodgers. I believe that Aaron Rodgers is the best player in the (very) modern era. Having said that, he has not had to contend with the kind of hits that Favre went through. There some bright lines where the rule changes have altered the game. Rodgers is superb, but the abuse that Favre took in that Saints playoff game was unbelievable. He was never the same. Between Favre and Rodgers, I'd give Favre the nod. I don't know if I'd say he was even the best QB. In other eras you have Johnny Unitas and others.
At the end of the day, I just enjoy the game. I'd give Don Hutson the nod on the Offensive Side of the ball. He literally redefined the receiver position and set records which stood for decades.
For me it has to be either Reggie White, Lawerence Taylor, or Ray Lewis. All of whom I've seen do other worldly things on a football field against the best at their positions. Ed Reed, Darrell Revis also being in the conversation as well.
Lawrence Taylor at his absolute peak
Reggie! Reggie! Reggie!
I saw him in the USFL, not as much when he was with Philly, and of course with Green Bay. He was a man among boys! With the game still in the balance, he had 3 sacks in one quarter of a Super Bowl vs Patriots.
Reggie White and Lawrence Taylor are solid picks. But I think if Dick Butkus had better surrounding casts, he would be regarded as the clear No. 1. I've never seen a defensive player dominate the way he did before his knees went bad.
In my humble opinion, which I doubt will be shared by many, the best defensive player ever was Sean Taylor. I've never seen a defensive player carry a sorrier team to the playoffs than Taylor did with Washington. He had the coverage ability/ball skills/return ability of Ed Reed with the tackling ability and hit power of Ray Lewis. The perfect player. I've never seen anything like it and doubt I ever will again. Due to his far too early death, he likely doesn't have the longevity to garner much support, but I just can't put another player above him. And the scary thing is, he was just finally learning to be a pro the year he died. Most of what he did, he did on talent and instincts alone. That man was born to play football. Most impressive highlight reel I've ever seen. If you havent seen it, check out "The Legend of Sean" on youtube. In just 3.5 seasons, he managed to make enough plays for a 31 minute clinic on how to dominate the game of football......as a safety. Could've been an all-pro running back or receiver too. He was that good. RIP Sean. Gone but never forgotten.
I've been watching football regularly for about 2 decades. Aaron Donald is by far the best defensive player I've seen. I wish I had been able to watch Lawrence Taylor at his peak
For me, it begins and ends with Reggie White!