From Harvey Martin in the 70s, to Charles Haley in the 90s, all the way up to DeMarcus Ware in the 2000s, the Cowboys have an impressive history of elite pass rushers. But while players like Martin, Haley, Ware, and others have had a number of prolific seasons getting to the quarterback for the Cowboys, there are a few who have flashed that sort of dominance in just a single random season.
Today is the 35th birthday of former Cowboys defensive lineman Jason Hatcher. Hatcher is one of five players who have just one season of at least 10 sacks for the Cowboys since the NFL began tracking the statistic in 1982. For today’s Throwback Thursday, we’re going to take a closer look at Hatcher and the four other one-time double-digit sack artists.
Jason Hatcher – 2013 – 11.0 Sacks
Hatcher was a third round selection by the Cowboys in 2006, the last of of Bill Parcells’ four drafts. He spent eight solid seasons in Dallas, playing in 119 games as a 3-4 defensive end and 4-3 defensive tackle (3-technique). Hatcher had only become a full time starter in 2011, his sixth season with the team, and saw his heaviest workload in 2013, averaging 50 snaps per game.
The increase in playing time coincided with the arrival of Rod Marinelli, who brought with him a reputation as a defensive line guru. Hatcher’s production exploded under Marinelli, generating 11.0 sacks in 15 games played. For context, Hatcher had just 10.5 sacks in his previous 61 games entering the 2013 season. Hatcher was named to the Pro Bowl for his efforts, and should probably have written a thank you note to Dallas’ NFC East rivals. 8.0 of his 11.0 sacks came in games against Washington, New York, and Philadelphia.
Hatcher signed a four-year, $27.5 million contract with division rival Washington in the 2014 offseason. The Redskins brought Hatcher in as a 3-4 defensive end, so a decline in sack production from his monster season with the Cowboys was to be expected. With the scheme change, and knee injuries limiting him in both 2014 and 2015, Hatcher totaled just 7.5 sacks in two seasons for the Redskins before retiring ahead of the 2016 season.
Anthony Spencer – 2012 – 11.0 Sacks
Spencer made frequent appearances in opposing backfields during his time with the Cowboys. From 2009-2011 Spencer registered 35 pressures according to SportingCharts.com, including the third most in the NFL in 2011 with 15. The problem with Spencer was that pressures, not sacks, were his specialty. During that 2011 season in which he tied for third in pressures, Spencer had just six sacks. The two players tied with him – Clay Matthews and Tamba Hali – and the two players ahead of him – Cameron Wake and Julius Peppers – combined for 37.5 sacks that year.
Spencer had 21.5 sacks through six seasons. His teammate on the opposite side, Ware, 19.5 sacks in 2011 alone. Because Spencer was producing a high number of pressures and a comparatively low number of sacks, fans began to call him “Almost Anthony.” A nickname that hardly seems fair given how much he disrupted opposing quarterbacks, and how much the team has struggled to find similar production in the last three years.
It all came together for Spencer in 2012. Spencer managed a career-high 11.0 sacks while playing in his fewest games (14) in four years. Spencer was getting a sack once every 77 snaps, which was almost equal to Ware’s efficiency of a sack every 75.5 snaps. The first half of the season looked to be another “Almost Anthony” special, but Spencer would ratchet up his play beginning in November, collecting 8.0 sacks in the team’s final seven games.
Spencer was slapped with the franchise tag in 2013, and moved to defensive end when the Cowboys returned to a 4-3 scheme under Monte Kiffin. What was supposed to be routine surgery to repair a bone bruise at the beginning of training camp turned into serious knee problems. Spencer played just one game in 2013, 13 games in 2014, and moved onto New Orleans in 2015 where his injury issues prevented him from ever playing a game. Following his breakout 2012 season, Spencer would end out collecting just a half a sack in the final three years of his career.
Greg Ellis – 2007 – 12.5 Sacks
Calling Ellis a “flash in the pan” isn’t very accurate. While 2007 was the only season in which Ellis would reach double-digits, he had led the team in sacks six times in the previous eight years heading into 2007. Five times he had managed at least 7.5 sacks before his career year.
The fact that Ellis set a career high for sacks in 2007 is pretty remarkable. He had missed the final seven games of 2006 with a torn Achilles, and the injury was serious enough that as late as August of 2007 there were questions about whether he’d ever play again. Ellis returned to the field in time for the fourth game of the season, and at 32 years old was playing the best football of his career. Ellis’ 12.5 sacks in just 13 games was a more prolific rate than Ware’s 14 sacks opposite him in 16 games. Ellis was elected to his first and only Pro Bowl in 2007, and was also honored as the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year by the Associated Press and the Professional Football Writers of America.
After his career year in 2007, Ellis finished with 8.0 sacks in 2008 before becoming a cap casualty the following offseason. Ellis spent the final year of his career with the Oakland Raiders in 2009. He would appear in 14 games that season and add 7.0 sacks to his career total. His 77.0 sacks as a Cowboy are officially the third-most in franchise history behind Jim Jeffcoat and Ware, and his seven season with at least 7.5 sacks trails only Ware’s eight seasons.
Tony Tolbert – 1996 – 12.0 Sacks
Tolbert is similar to Ellis in that it’s not quite fare to call him a flash in the pan. Selected in the fourth round by the Cowboys in 1989 as part of Jimmy Johnson’s first draft, Tolbert arrived in Dallas with Randy Gregory measurements: 6-6, 225lb. Tolbert worked at his craft, added more than 40 pounds, and became a full-time starter for Dallas in 1991. He wasn’t as productive as Ware, or even Ellis for that matter, but Tolbert generated consistent pressure, and totaled 23.0 sacks between ’91-’93.
Tolbert had a degenerative knee condition and was often playing through excruciating pain in the latter half of his career. He would pick up 5.5 sacks in both 1994 and 1995, his lowest totals since his 1989 rookie season. With his best days seemingly behind him, Tolbert stepped up and delivered a career season when the Cowboys needed him the most. Haley missed most of the season, and was ineffective with back issues when he did play. Tolbert turned in 12.0 sacks for Dallas, including 8.0 in the 11 games played without Haley. Just like Ellis, Spencer, and Hatcher after him, Tolbert’s only double-digit sack season also produced his only election to the Pro Bowl.
Tolbert ran himself empty in the ’96 season. The following year he registered just 5.0 sacks, setting a new post-rookie season low from his ’94 and ’95 outputs. With the knee problems mounting, and the Cowboys in need of cap room, Tolbert was released in June of 1998. Though the knee problems persisted, Tolbert started every game for Dallas over the final seven years of his career.
Anthony Dickerson – 1983 – 10.5 Sacks
Dickerson is hands-down the most unfamiliar name on this list. Ask the most rabid, decades-long Cowboys fan who Anthony Dickerson is and they’ll probably stare blankly at you. Even finding a picture of Dickerson for this article was challenging. Dickerson was a linebacker who had gone undrafted out of SMU, and was twice rejected by the Canadian Football League. When the Cowboys signed him in 1980 off the scrap heap, he was attempting to earn a business degree from the University of Houston. Like any player plucked out of free agent obscurity, Dickerson had traits. He wasn’t the biggest linebacker at 6’2, 220 pounds, but he had 4.5 speed and could run stride-for-stride with almost any running back in football.
He earned his keep early by making plays on special teams. His speed and tackling ability were valuable assets on kick coverage. While he only saw spot duty on defense, he made the most of his opportunities in 1980, making impressive chase-down tackles and intercepting two passes in a game against the 49ers. His play and work ethic earned him a spot as the special teams captain in 1981.
Dickerson continued to work hard during his first three seasons and was finally given the chance to start in 1983. Running a 4-3 defensive scheme, Dickerson’s play at linebacker was electric. His 10.5 sacks were generated almost exclusively as a situational blitzing linebacker, making him one of the NFL’s most efficient pass-rushers. Dickerson scooped up three fumbles and intercepted a pass as well, tying him for fifth on the team in turnovers.
Dickerson appeared to be a rising star at the end of 1983, but his reputation was that of a wild man, There wasn’t a lot of technique to Dickerson’s game, and when teams began to scheme up his car-crash style, he became significantly less effective. Dickerson’s production plummeted in 1984, with just 2.0 sacks. With his 1983 season appearing to be a fluke, and Dickerson rapidly approaching the age of 30, the Cowboys traded him to the Buffalo Bills for a seventh round draft pick. Dickerson didn’t start a single game for the 2-14 ’85 Bills and was released in training camp the following year. A five-day stop with the Miami Dolphins in training camp was his final job in the NFL before the lack of work forced him to retire.