State Your Case: Harvey Martin

NFL Defensive Player of the Year with 23 sacks

(Published November 2014)

The NFL record book says Michael Strahan holds the NFL single-season record with 22 ½ sacks.

But that’s not even the best season by a pass rusher in the NFC East.

The Dallas Cowboys list defensive end Harvey Martin as their single-season sack leader in their record book with 23. But those sacks came in 1977 — and sacks were not recognized as an official stat by the NFL until 1982.

Martin collected his 23 sacks back when the NFL played a 14-game regular season. Strahan needed 16 games to get his 22 ½ sacks, including a gift sack from Brett Favre in the closing minutes of the season finale that allowed the Giants end to set the record. Martin was not the recipient of any such gifts — and he didn’t discriminate between quarterbacks and running backs, collecting a career-best 85 tackles that season as the Cowboys led the NFL in defense.

In the NFL’s eyes, Martin’s 114 career sacks don’t count, either. That’s more than Hall-of-Fame edge rushers Lee Roy Selmon, Andre Tippett and Elvin Bethea.

Martin was a four-time Pro Bowler, a 1970s NFL all-decade selection, the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1977 and a Super Bowl MVP in 1978. Yet unlike Strahan, he isn’t in the Hall of Fame. He has never even been discussed as a finalist. His 25-year window of eligibility for Canton came and went, and he’s now in the abyss of seniors candidates.

How does a player with his credentials go unnoticed … much less unrecognized?

Martin was an NAIA All-America out tiny East Texas State. The Cowboys found him in the third round of the 1973 draft, and he provided an immediate impact, collecting nine sacks as a designated pass rusher as a rookie.

Martin led the Cowboys in sacks each of the next four seasons and in seven of the next nine years playing the weakside end in a defensive front that also included Hall-of-Famer Randy White and the former first overall pick of the 1974 NFL draft, Ed “Too Tall” Jones.

In addition to his 23 sacks in 1977, Martin rang up 16 sacks in 1978, 12 in 1980, and 10 in both 1979 and 1981. There wasn’t a better pass rusher in the NFL during that five-year window. Martin helped the Cowboys become not only a dominant defensive unit but a dominant team as well.

During Martin’s 11 seasons, the Cowboys won 72.9 percent of their games (116-43), six division titles and qualified for the playoffs 10 times. The Cowboys reached seven NFC title games and three Super Bowls. In the one Super Bowl the Cowboys won, Martin had two sacks and a forced fumble to key a defensive effort that forced the Denver Broncos into seven first-half turnovers on the way to a 27-10 victory. Martin and White were named co-MVPs of the game.

But somehow the dominance of Martin has been lost in the pages of history. He has since passed away, dying of pancreatic cancer in 2001. His memory — and his play with the Cowboys — deserved better.


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