MIKE O'HARA

Al "Bubba" Baker says Ndamukong Suh understands what the game is about

Posted Aug 1, 2013

Baker, who played on a defensive line in Detroit known as the Silver Rush, appreciates Suh's football temperament, attitude and how he approaches the game

Bubba Baker hit 2013 Detroit Lions training camp like a summer storm, except he didn't blow over in a hurry or leave any lasting damage.

Al Bubba BakerDT Al "Bubba" Baker

What Baker left in his wake from his two-day visit to camp was fond memories, good cheer and a prediction that the Lions' defensive line could be better than the Silver Rush front four he played as a Lion four decades ago.

When Baker talks pass rush, as he did when he spoke to the Lions' defensive linemen in a post-practice session, defensive linemen should listen – even the young players who may not have known about him.

Baker, who played the first five seasons (1978-82) of his 13-year career with the Lions, was one of the best pass-rushing defensive ends of any era.

His career statistics don't reflect it because the NFL did not recognize sacks as an official statistic until 1982. By then, Baker had accumulated 67 sacks in his first four seasons. They may not be official stats, but the quarterbacks he hammered to the turf no doubt can vouch that they counted – and hurt.

Baker didn't waste time making his acquaintance with quarterbacks. He was credited with 23 sacks as a rookie in 1978.

He had ability, desire and football temperament. On the field, his mission was to destroy anyone who stood between him and the quarterback.

Baker had a nasty streak on the field – something he thinks should be part of every player's arsenal. It's as important as technique, and it's a trait he appreciates in Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

"I think they forget that this game today is about man on man and kick the crap out of the guy in front of you and dominate him," Baker said. "Make them rotate coverage to yourself so your buddy can excel.

"I don't want this to come out the wrong way, but Ndamukong Suh understands what the game is about. That guy in front of you – with honor and respect, you need to humiliate his butt. When he's done with a game, he doesn't want to see Ndamukong Suh or Bubba Baker again in his life.

"I don't think there's enough of that. You play football because you can legally kick the crap out of the guy across from you. You can legally abuse him."

Baker heaped more than his share of abuse on quarterbacks, and he had a colorful streak to go with his ability.

"He was just a big personality," said former Lions kicker Eddie Murray, a teammate of Baker's for three seasons as a Lion. "He always had a smile. He was a good locker-room guy, trying to make people laugh.

"And he had a great motor. He brought it every play. He played hard."

Baker was a fan favorite at the old Pontiac Silverdome. Chants of "Kill, Bubba, Kill," similar to what former Michigan State star Bubba Smith heard a decade earlier, echoed through the stadium.

One former Detroit sportswriter once wrote that his favorite play was when the Lions punted – because it meant Bubba Baker would take the field to wreak mayhem on the quarterback.

Bubba BakerAl "Bubba" Baker (Photo: Detroit Lions archives)

Al "Bubba" Baker, drafted by the Lions in the second round out of Colorado State in 1978, landed in the NFL with a starburst of pass-rush excellence that was like a computer-generated action hero from a Hollywood producer's wildest imagination exploding onto the scene.

He was big – 6-6 and somewhere between 265 pounds and 280, with a quick burst from either right or left defensive end. He had long arms and agility that allowed him to play football and basketball at Colorado State.

Beyond that, Baker had a great storyline. He grew up in Newark and learned his pass-rush moves from cutting between the head stones in a cemetery near his home.

However he honed his skills, he was death on quarterbacks, no pun intended.

The Silver Rush unit he played on in Detroit was known for its pass-rush ability. The late Monte Clark, then head coach of the Lions, wanted quick, agile defenders up front. The entire unit fit that model.

John Woodcock, Doug English and Dave Pureifory were the other starters. Along with Baker, they rolled up sacks like they were coming off the assembly line at the Ford Rouge plant. English was a three-time Pro Bowler and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

One play in a road game against Denver in 1981 epitomized the destructive impact Baker had on offenses. The Broncos had second and goal at the Lions' four-yard line, with a 10—0 lead early in the fourth quarter. Another TD would have blown open a game that the Broncos ultimately held on to win, 27-21.

On the second-down play, Broncos quarterback Craig Morton dropped to pass, but before he could set his feet to throw, Baker hammered him to the turf for a 10-yard loss. The Broncos wound up attempting a field goal that was blocked.

The play was one example of the abuse Baker dispensed. He played five seasons with the Lions before being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1983. He had other stops in Cleveland, Minnesota and Cleveland again. He retired after the 1990 season.

Baker and his wife, Sabrina, have made the Cleveland area home. It is the base of their family-operated Bubba's Q catering service – a retail and wholesale enterprise that includes his own brand of barbeque sauce.

Baker's calling card as a player was sacking the quarterback.

"He reminded me of Doug Atkins," said Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, comparing Baker to the Hall of Fame defensive end who played 17 pro seasons (1953-69), mostly with the Bears.

"They were great athletes. I study all those old-time guys."

Baker proved that he was no one-year fluke. He followed his 23-sack rookie season with sack totals of 16, 18 and 10 the next three years. He had 8.5 in the 1982 season that was shortened to nine regular-season games by a players strike.

Baker's many disputes with the front office over his contract led to him being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1983. He also played with Cleveland, Minnesota and Cleveland again before retiring after the 1990 season.

The official records list him with 65.5 career sacks. Adding the 67 "unofficial" sacks from Baker's first four seasons would give him 132.5 and in a tie for ninth place on the all-time list with Lawrence Taylor and Leslie O'Neal.

Privately, Baker is like a lot of older players who feel their careers have not been given full value. Publicly, he's not campaigning for more recognition.

"My philosophy has been, don't open a can of worms," Baker said. "Who knows how many Coy Bacon had? How many Roger Brown (a former Lion) had? How many Deacon Jones had?"

No matter what the record books say, ask quarterbacks how many Baker and those other plays had. They still might feel every one of them.