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Surprise! Steve McMichael was one of the NFL’s greatest sack artists

WCG historian Jack Silverstein on Mongo’s best Hall of Fame credential.

Washington Redskins v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

“I don’t know if Steve McMichael has ever really been considered for the Hall of Fame, but I think he’s as strong a candidate as anyone when you look at what he has done from a longevity standpoint and the way he has played. He’s closing in on 100 sacks and, for a defensive tackle, that’s unheard of.”

— Trace Armstrong, December 1993

My new story on Steve McMichael’s case for the Pro Football Hall of Fame is long. Real long. We’re talking 191-consecutive-NFL-games-played long. And while you should definitely read it (here you go!), I want to make sure that one element does not get lost in the word count.

You ready?

Here goes:

Steve McMichael is one of the greatest NFL sack artists to ever play his position.

I guess I knew this, kind of. I knew that he had 95 career sacks. I knew that was high all-time for DTs. I knew that his 92.5 sacks with the Chicago Bears was second in franchise history, and being second in Bears history in any defensive stat is a big deal. (Okay — he’s probably behind Doug Atkins too.)

Considering McMichael’s longevity and consecutive-games streak, there’s an instinct to look at his totals and think, “Well, he was just a compiler.” And I may have thought that until I really dug in and got creative with how I looked at his numbers, and the numbers of other d-tackles.

Here are my six favorite Steve McMichael sack facts — including three that aren’t in my original story. (Plus two bonus sections at the very end, one on the trouble with tackles data, the other on Richard Seymour.)

Tribune cartoon of the ‘85 Bears, January 1986.

1. For 11 years, Steve McMichael out-sacked the AP All Pro defensive tackles

From 1983 (when McMichael became a starter) to 1993 (his final season on the Bears), Steve McMichael outsacked the average Associated Press All Pro defensive tackle:

  • AP DT average: 7.8 sacks
  • McMichael average: 8.2 sacks

When we zoom in to the five best Bears defensive seasons of the 1980s, 1984 to 1988, McMichael (who the AP named 1st team in ‘85 and ‘87 and 2nd team in ‘86) is even better:

  • AP DT average: 7.1 sacks
  • AP DT 1st team average: 9.0 sacks
  • McMichael average: 8.9 sacks
McMichael and Ron Rivera team up to bring down Vikings quarterback Wade Wilson, one of McMichael’s 2.5 sacks that day. (Chicago Tribune photo / Bob Langer)

2. Steve McMichael is tied for third in NFL history for the most 8-sack seasons by a DT

Those AP All Pro numbers, plus my own assessment as a 40-year football fan, tells me that when a defensive tackle bags eight sacks in a season, that’s a pretty damn good year. Obviously you’re going to have guys like Aaron Donald or John Randle who rush the passer like a defensive end, but during McMichael’s career, you had other standouts like Michael Carter and Tim Krumrie who were primarily run-stuffers and were light on sacks.

Even today, eight sacks for a DT is a good season. Among defensive tackles, McMichael ranks third all-time for most seasons with eight or more sacks:

  1. Alan Page — 11 seasons
  2. Alex Karras — 8 seasons
  3. John Randle & Steve McMichael — 7 seasons

3. Steve McMichael is the Bears’ all-time leader in safeties

He has three. And they were all against the Packers! You gotta love that.

Steve McMichael sacks Packers QB Jim Zorn for a safety in 1985. McMichael is the Bears’ career leader in safeties, with three, all against the Packers. (UPI photo)

4. Steve McMichael was consistently among the league leaders for sacks by a defensive tackle

Another angle of mine as I explored the sack data was looking at the NFL’s defensive tackle sack rankings from ‘83 to ‘93. In those 11 seasons, Steve McMichael was consistently ranked among the best defensive tackles for total sacks in a season. Here are his best finishes:

  • #1: 1987 (tied), 1988, 1991 (tied)
  • Top 5: 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1991, 1992
  • Top 10: 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1991, 1992

In McMichael’s era, only Bill Pickel of the Raiders and Jets had three first-place finishes, and he had nearly 40 fewer career sacks than McMichael. No one else had more than four top-5 finishes, no one else had more than five top-10 finishes.

It is true that any time you sort stats to fit one particular player’s parameters, the stat skews in favor of that person. (The classic example: this graphic grouping Thaddeus Young with Magic, Bird, MJ and LeBron.)

Out of both fairness and curiosity, I also looked at other all-time great defensive tackles who either didn’t overlap with McMichael or barely overlapped with him. And would ya look at this:

1st place finishes

  • John Randle: 5x (with one tie)
  • Steve McMichael: 3x (with two ties)
  • Warren Sapp: 1x

Top-5 finishes

  • Randle: 8x
  • McMichael: 7x
  • Sapp: 6x

Top-10 finishes

  • McMichael: 9x
  • Randle: 9x
  • Sapp: 9x
Steve McMichael recovers a fumble in 1988 against the Colts. That day he also had one of his team-leading, and career-high, 11.5 sacks. (Chicago Tribune photo / Charles Cherney)

5. Steve McMichael was one of the greatest Bears ever at amassing sack streaks

Steve McMichael’s consecutive games played streak is well known. Less known (not known at all?) are his streaks of registering at least half a sack. I don’t remember now how or why I found this, but Robert Quinn closed this season with nine straight games logging at least half a sack.

According to the sort tools on Stathead, this is the longest such streak for any Bears player since 1982, when sacks became an official NFL stat.

(He passed Rosy Colvin, who had eight straight games across the 2001 and 2002 seasons.)

McMichael’s longest streak was six games in 1989, which leaves him tied for fourth with Richard Dent. (Also ahead of them is Alonzo Spellman, who had seven straight such games across 1994 and 1995.) But McMichael has a distinction that not even Dent has: the most such five-game streaks. McMichael’s streaks:

  • 5 games: Week 10 to Week 14, 1983 (7 total sacks)
  • 6 games: Week 8 to Week 13, 1989 (5 total sacks)
  • 5 games: Week 9 to Week 13, 1991 (5 total sacks)

Richard Dent has two such five-game streaks. Eight others have one streak apiece: Quinn, Khalil Mack, Willie Young, Colvin, Brian Urlacher, Spellman, Otis Wilson, Dan Hampton.

Steve McMichael wasn’t just racking up high career sack totals because of his durability and availability. He was steady, and could go on runs.

Steve McMichael and Richard Dent take down new Packers starting QB Brett Favre in 1992, forcing a fumble that McMichael recovered. (AP photo)

6. Steve McMichael was not named to the Pro Bowl, nor the AP All Pro team, in any of his three best sack seasons

When considering McMichael’s Hall of Fame case, his low count of both Pro Bowls and AP All Pro selections stands out. While the Associated Press is not the only game in town for All Pro teams (I explore that in the full piece), it is the standard-bearer for good or ill, and in 15 NFL seasons, McMichael only made the AP All Pro team four times: 1st team in 1985 and 1987, 2nd team in 1986 and 1991.

McMichael also only made the Pro Bowl twice — in 1986 and 1987.

Oddly, his top three sack seasons were not in any of those four most-honored seasons. Here are McMichael’s 10 best sack seasons, along with his top accolades:

  1. 11.5 — 1988
  2. 10.5 — 1992
  3. 10.0 — 1984
  4. 9.0 — 1991 — 2nd team AP All Pro
  5. 8.5 — 1983
  6. 8.0 — 1985 — 1st team AP All Pro
  7. 8.0 — 1986 — 2nd team AP All Pro + Pro Bowl
  8. 7.5 — 1989
  9. 7.0 — 1987 — 1st team AP All Pro + Pro Bowl
  10. 6.0 — 1993

Obviously 1987 was a strike year, with the pros only playing 12 games. Still, if you adjust McMichael’s sack count for a 16-game season, he’s just over 9 sacks, still not in the top 3.

I can speculate as to the specifics of why he didn’t get those nods (two are obvious: in 1984, he was overshadowed by Dent and Hampton, while in 1992, the Bears were bad) but a look inside the numbers reveals that during McMichael’s career, big sack totals weren’t necessarily a driver of accolades for defensive tackles, meaning McMichael was not the only DT short-changed.

2021 was the 40th season in which sacks were an official stat. Split that into two eras and you have 1982-2001 (20 years) and 2002-2021 (20 years).

In those first 20 years, defensive tackles amassed a combined 57 seasons of 10 sacks or more, yet only 27 of those seasons were rewarded with a Pro Bowl selection.

In the final 20 years, DTs had only 22 such seasons, yet made the Pro Bowl 16 times.

That’s 47% vs. 73%:

Again, I don’t know why this happened. But I do know that “five-time Pro Bowler and four-time All Pro” feels much different than “two-time Pro Bowler and four-time All Pro.” The sack stats in this story are merely one of five elements of my argument for McMichael, but if McMichael had Pro Bowl selections in his three double-digit sack seasons (not to mention additional AP All Pro selections), we might not even need the other four arguments. His PF HOF credentials may have looked much different.

And today, instead of waiting for a call to Canton, his bust might already be there.




Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, and author of the forthcoming “6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game.” His newsletter, “A Shot on Ehlo,” brings readers inside the making of the book, with original interviews, research and essays. Sign up now, and say hey at @readjack.

Read Jack’s full Mongo McMichael Hall of Fame article here.




Steve McMichael chasing Dan Marino, 1991. (Chicago Tribune photo / Bob Langer)

Okay... bonus time...

First: a note about tackles.

You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned McMichael’s 847 career tackles, and how that compares to his historic peers. The reason is that tackles as a statistic are a huge problem in McMichael’s era. I originally had a whole section in the piece on tackles, including this:

  • Steve McMichael: 847 tackles — 213 games
  • Warren Sapp: 578 tackles — 198 games
  • John Randle: 556 tackles — 219 games
  • Aaron Donald: 441 tackles — 127 games

But I ultimately got rid of everything focused on tackles because the numbers can’t be trusted prior to 1994, McMichael’s final season. The reason is that tackles used to be collected just by teams, meaning tackle totals were wildly different depending on how a given team counted them. Broncos superfan Ron Katz is involved in the Canton seniors committee push for Broncos linebacker Randy Gradishar; Ron told me this about Gradishar’s tackle totals:

A former defensive coordinator, meaning well, pulled all of (Gradishar’s) game tapes and recounted his tackles. Got him to 2049. It was viewed by some of the selectors as trying to rig the numbers. No malicious intent (...).

When I told him that I heard about this problem of fudging tackle totals, Ron said:

It really wasn’t fudging the tackles. It was more that the accuracy throughout may not have been robust. But it wasn’t any blatant attempt to cheat. It was an old defensive coordinator with pride in his player.

Ted Crockett from the Hall of Fame committee I’m in passed along two articles from historian John Turney about the problems with tackle totals. For instance, depending on the source, Falcons great Jessie Tuggle had either 1,805 tackles or over 2,000.

This second article looks at the divergent tackle totals of Ray Lewis, Zach Thomas and Brian Urlacher.

So then I thought, “Well, I can’t make good tackle comparisons for McMichael against DTs on other teams, but I can at least see where he ranked among his teammates.”

That hit another problem, which is that Pro Football Reference is missing tackle data for a number of players whose careers started prior to 1980, or even some who started later. As a result, they don’t have tackle stats for Hampton or Singletary, preventing me from doing a clean, “Mongo led the Bears DL in tackles in X seasons and rated Xth among all Bears...”

I moved on from Singletary, who obviously will have more tackles than Mongo, and tried everything to get Hampton’s tackles. I checked for end-of-year stats; the Trib ran pages and pages of player profiles before the ‘85/’86 playoffs, and had everyone’s tackles except for Hampton’s. I found Hampton’s ‘85 tackles in the preseason of ‘86, but I had no way to verify them. I pulled his stats off of the back of his playing cards that are for sale on eBay, but that didn’t help because for my section on 1988 I tallied up the team’s tackle stats by running through every Tribune box score, and my totals for McMichael were then different than what PFR has.

As a result, I ultimately left out the tackle angle and just went with sacks. But yes, Mongo was super active and for racked up his share of tackles!

Second note: Richard Seymour.

All the way until my final draft I had a short section showing Mongo’s comp with Richard Seymour (who, to me, is 100% a PF HOFer). Along with being a great one-to-one comparison opportunity, Seymour is interesting because he had something critical that McMichael lacked that has nothing to do with either man: continuity at quarterback, to say the least.

In the end, I cut it because the piece was real long and I thought the point was made, but here is the cut material:

I used Young as the comp instead of Seymour because with his seven Pro Bowls, five AP All Pro selections (three on the first team) and his contribution to three Super Bowl champions plus the 2007 16-0 team that lost SB XLII, Seymour felt much more obvious as a future HOFer than did McMichael. And yet...

Steve McMichael vs. Richard Seymour:

  • Games: 213-164 MCMICHAEL
  • Sacks: 95.0-57.5 MCMICHAEL
  • Forced fumbles: 13-4 MCMICHAEL
  • Recovered fumbles: 17-8 MCMICHAEL
  • Tackles: 847-498 MCMICHAEL
  • Interceptions: 2-2 tie
  • Defensive TDs: 1-0 Seymour

Even accounting for the difference in games played, McMichael’s per-game counts are even or ahead of Seymour. Essentially Mongo gets dinged here because the 80s Bears had more standout defensive players than did the Pats of the early 2000s, and the Pats were led by arguably the greatest QB ever and arguably the greatest head coach ever.

Steve McMichael’s Tribune profile, Jan. 3, 1986.