Cedric Hardman just missed the dawning of the 49ers’ Super Bowl dynasty but he seldom missed a quarterback. That’s why his sack total in San Francisco of 107 remains the club record 40 years since he last dragged down a quarterback at the 49ers’ behest.
Although sacks did not become an official NFL statistic until 1982, the year after Hardman retired, ardent film study has established the unofficial totals of a number of the game’s top quarterback harassers from football’s early days. Cedric Hardman was certainly one of them.
In 12 NFL seasons, Hardman piled up 121.5 sacks, which would tie him for 30th all-time alongside Clyde Simmons if the crushing of quarterbacks prior to 1982 was fully accounted for today. Yet Hardman is one of those players who while revered in his day by the players who knew him best, his teammates, has otherwise been all but forgotten.
When he passed away at 70 on March 8 there was an outpouring of affection and respect for him however from both the 49ers and the Oakland Raider teammates he had in his final two seasons in the NFL. All of them understood while he may not have been the most complete player, he was an impactful one.
“Cedrick Hardman was a ‘Sack Savage!’’ former Raider All-Pro cornerback Lester Hayes recalled. “Third down for him was like a designated hitter in baseball. Cedrick’s sack skills were just like Greg Townsend or Howie Long…just stupendous. My success in pass defense was based on pressure. I needed pressure because we played the bump-and-run and Cedrick gave us high heat!”
Hardman brought that heat from North Texas State, where he had a ridiculous 30 sacks his senior year, including 11 against Tulsa on Homecoming Day. Strike up the band!
His play there so impressed the 49ers that they made him the ninth player selected in the 1970 draft and he became their instant designated pass rusher. But by season’s end he was starting at defensive end, a position he would hold for a decade despite what he admitted was not a fondness for run defense.
“They held a party for Ced after he closed his first trap,’’ former 49ers’ coach Mike Giddings once joked. “The party was in 1972, his third season.’’
Whatever the veracity of that statement there was no denying he quickly became a pass rushing force, unofficially leading the NFL in sacks the next year with 18. That year he also had a hand in five more sacks in the NFC championship game. At the time few talked of it but in a book about the 49ers published three decades later Hardman reflected on what might have been had his career begun later.
“If someone were to get five sacks in the NFC Championship game today, they'd take his shoes, his helmet and send them straight to Canton," Hardman said in the 2005 book, "San Francisco 49ers: Where Have You Gone?" “But we lost that game, so it wasn't a big deal."
One game like that today and he’d be half way to being called “sure fire first ballot Hall of Famer’’ by the talking heads on highlight shows but nearly 50 years ago it took a bit more to be recognized.
Known for his quickness and upfield speed, Hardman’s obsession with sacks at times made him a liability against the run in the years he was asked to play the Flex defense Tom Landry disciple Dick Nolan installed in San Francisco. But he was never so much of a liability that Nolan considered anything but penciling his name in the starting lineup each Sunday. In fact, Hardman played every game in 10 of his 12 NFL seasons, missing only three games in his first nine years in the NFL.
When Monte Clark replaced Nolan in 1976, he installed a more upfield defensive approach called the “Jet scheme.’’ No one was better suited for its demands than Hardman, who was the anchor of a front four that became known as the Gold Rush. In 1976, that foursome, which included Hardman, Tommy Hart, Cleveland Elam and Jimmy Webb, piled up 76 sacks. Hardman would lead them with 12.5 in the midst of a five-year run in which he would pile up 61 of his career total 121.5 sacks.
Hardman once told the Los Angeles Times when he was a collegiate assistant coach under George Allen at Long Beach State that, “Rushing the quarterback to me is a religion. It’s a sacred art that you almost have to have performed to completely understand. Everybody isn't qualified to teach it.
"All I did was take an idea that was spawned by Deacon Jones and took it as far as I could take it, and I had a good time with it. Deacon more or less gave birth to the thrill of sacking the quarterback. He was the best at it."
Many would agree but you can’t go too far down the list of quarterback destroyers before you’d come across the name Cedric Hardman. Maybe part of the reason why was, as he once put it, sacking the quarterback was “my main reason for living the first 13 years of my adult life.’’
Originally a defensive back when he arrived at North Texas, each year that went by he moved closer to the line of scrimmage. He shifted to linebacker his sophomore season and played defensive end his final two years. By then 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds with the ability to run a 4.8 40 and the quickness to get off the ball like propelled from a catapult, there Cedric Hardman found his true calling.
He would twice be named to the Pro Bowl and twice an All-Pro despite playing mostly on lack luster teams in San Francisco before finishing his career as an elder statesman on a 1980 Raiders team that won the Super Bowl. And guess what? At 32 and coming off a nagging ankle injury, he led them with 9.5 sacks that year too.
While Hardman did not make the traditional All-Decade team of the 1970s, he did make one that was viewed both then, and now, with great respect. Paul Zimmerman, the long-time Sports Illustrated football writer known as Dr. Z, named him to his 1970s All-Decade team, believing he was a vastly underrated player damaged primarily by the poor teams he often played on. Cedric Hardman had 107 sacks that decade, the most of any player in that era.
Does that make him Hall of Fame worthy? It would today. Considering that he piled up those numbers at a time when teams threw considerably less and for the first eight of those years played only a 14-game schedule it at least seems to make him worthy of a long look from the Hall of Fame’s senior committee.