Published July 30, 2016
The powerful, relentless surge of the edge pass rusher, blasting into the quarterback like a missile lasered in on its target, is one of football’s most iconic acts of destruction in a sport filled with them.
Let me tell you about Al “Bubba” Baker.
Baker was the Lions’ 2nd round draft pick in 1978, out of Colorado State. It was one of the franchise’s best non-first round draft choices ever. Maybe the best.
The Lions, for all their warts, have boasted some of pro football’s best defensive lines over the decades, going back to the 1950s.
The 1960s saw a plodding offense just about every year, but oh, those Lions defenses! It was the Lions’ offense, not their defense, that kept them from championship contention.
But by the time Baker came along, the Lions had been several years removed from having a fearsome foursome.
Most of the Lions’ success on the defensive line had come from brilliance in the middle.
Bubba Baker changed all that.
The NFL didn’t officially start keeping track of quarterback sacks until 1982, Baker’s fifth season in the league.
But others in the league did keep stats on sacks, if even for their own team’s purposes.
Baker, according to the Lions, had 23 sacks in his rookie year, including five in a single game against Tampa Bay.
Baker’s 23 sacks, if official, would be an NFL record. The “official” record is 22.5, set by Michael Strahan of the New York Giants in 2001.
Of course, Deacon Jones, who coined the word “sack,” claimed to have had close to 30 in some of his best years.
Would you argue with Deacon?
Regardless, Baker was a force. He towered at 6’6″, weighed in around 250 pounds and was as athletic of a defensive end as has ever played in the NFL. He had the speed of a gazelle, the power of a locomotive and he could be in the quarterback’s private pocket area in the blink of an eye.
Baker’s pro career is officially credited with 65.5 sacks, but in four of those years, the league didn’t count them. According to the Lions, Baker had 75.5 sacks playing for them between 1978-82, which would give him 140 for his career, putting him sixth all-time (again, Deacon Jones would have been in the top five—maybe number one).
By the time the NFL got around to tabulating sacks, Baker was on the back end of his career, which he finished with the Cardinals and the Browns after leaving Detroit.
But for those five splendid years as a Lion, Al “Bubba” Baker was among the most feared defensive ends in football.
After Baker, there was Michael Cofer, a football swingman (LB and DE).
From 1986-90, Cofer, another second round pick (Tennessee, 1983), rang up 47 sacks for the Lions before a horrible knee injury suffered at home vs. Miami (I was there) in 1991 essentially ended his career.
Cofer played at 6’5″, 245, which even in his day was a little undersized but it didn’t matter because few offensive tackles could block him.
Some 25 years after Cofer terrorized quarterbacks, we have Ziggy Ansah.
Ansah is the “project” drafted fifth overall in the 2013 draft out of BYU by then-GM Marty Mayhew, who deserves credit for his gamble.
Ansah was considered a project because he had only picked up the game of football a few years before being drafted.
For the Lions, it’s been like finding the lead singer of a rock and roll band after a chance encounter on karaoke night.
Ansah, already, is an elite pass rusher and a more than competent run stopper on the outside. He registered 14.5 sacks in 2015 and has an even 30 for this three-year career, in which he’s started 44 of a possible 48 games.
Ansah isn’t the first “Ziggy” to be associated with the Lions, by the way.
The first ziggy was the word coined by coach Joe Schmidt, which by definition means the coach got fired.
Today’s Ziggy is listed at 6’5″ and 271 pounds and, like Baker and Cofer before him, Ansah has legs of Lincoln and the quickness of a cat. Plus there’s the strength of a lumberjack.
Just think how good he’ll be when he really learns how to play the game.
I don’t say that in jest or with any snark.
Ansah still has much to learn. The finer points of his position can only be absorbed with experience. The art of footwork, learning the strengths and weaknesses of opposing blockers and knowing the best routes to take to get to the passer—and which not to take—should take firmer hold with every snap he plays.
You don’t start playing football in high school and have the game mastered in four years.
But that’s OK, because conventional wisdom says that Ziggy Ansah is only going to get better the longer he plays. And he’s two years way from possibly playing for a team other than the Lions, who ought not to let that happen.
Ansah’s five-year rookie contract expires after the 2017 season. The Lions don’t want another Ndamukong Suh situation—although in retrospect, letting Suh go to Miami via free agency probably wasn’t all that bad.
Suh, a force in the middle, nonetheless could never be as valuable as a guy who plays Ansah’s position with brilliance, which Ziggy does already.
Give me a powerful edge pass rusher over a dominating defensive tackle any day of the week and twice on Sundays.
Lions GM Bob Quinn knows of which he does. It’s only been six months, but Quinn already strikes me as the most competent front office guy to work for the Lions…ever. Certainly in my 46 years of following the team.
So I expect that Quinn won’t pussyfoot around and will lock up Ziggy Ansah to a fat contract extension well before the Ghanaian Gazelle even gets a whiff of free agency from a distance.
No Suh bungling, as was done by the two-headed front office monster of Mayhew and Tom Lewand—which I believe went into the decision by Martha Ford to terminate the both of them last fall.
Quinn comes from pro football pedigree par excellence, and he knows a pass rushing behemoth when he sees it. And he knows that you don’t let those types wander off to another team over money.
Ziggy Ansah is no Bubba Baker. Not yet. But he’s better than Mike Cofer.
So that makes Ansah, after three years, the second-best pass rusher in Lions history.
The Lions traded Baker to St. Louis in the summer of 1983, for DT Mike Dawson. The Lions got robbed, mainly because Baker wanted out of Detroit so badly.
It was yet another instance of a star football player leaving the Lions, with the Lions getting so little back—if anything—in return.
This can’t happen with Ziggy Ansah. And it won’t, because Bob Quinn won’t let it happen, which is more than you can say for Quinn’s predecessors.