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Let Me Tell You Everything I Know About Sacks

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What I found was pretty hairy.

Miami Dolphins v Cleveland Browns
I was there that beautiful day in Cleveland. This sack was simply gorgeous.
Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

I sat down at the computer to start writing an article about how college tackles transition to the NFL as guards. I wanted to find some kind of objective way of projecting how Laremy Tunsil will handle his transition to guard. Going from left tackle to right tackle is one thing, but how different is it to go from tackle to guard?

Then I realized, I like big explosions in movies, I still laugh at farts, I like saying the word "boobies", and I sure as s*** don’t watch the offensive linemen during a football game. I notice them if they’re sucking, but not if they’re not sucking. It dawned on me that I was crushed by the inability to objectively compare linemen by stats, and I would’ve had to go as deep as 7 rounds + undrafted, since starting linemen come from all over the map, scanning each college year they played and at what offensive line position. How far back do you go? How would a person like me objectively evaluate OL success anyway?

After pondering it over a beer or seven, it became quite clear. It’s time to get on the Internet and look at sacks.

What I found was hairy to say the least.

I had been operating under the assumption that there was a supply and demand crisis in the NFL when it came to OL: there were too many elite pass rushers, and defensive coordinators were better than ever getting their best pass rushers on the worst offensive linemen. We’ve heard the recent struggles of highly drafted OL not panning out at their natural position OR their "unnatural" position - and if anybody has an apathetic stance towards offensive linemen, it’s the Miami Dolphins fan base. I might pop in the bedroom and have another kid if I knew we wouldn’t have to talk about the offensive line in Miami for 3 consecutive years.

There’s more pass attempts than ever in the NFL, and the rules are ever-so-passing-game-friendly. Sacks are a product of how often teams are passing. If you’re catching my drift here: as pass attempts go up, sacks should go up. And I thought for sure I’d see it in the numbers. Like any hedonistic gay man, I figured I’d be swimming in sacks, considering the proliferation of the passing game. I just didn’t.

Some interesting nuggets that I found out along the way:

  • Of the last 14 Super Bowl participants, only 1 has been outside of the top half of the league in sacks. 0 have been outside the top 20.
  • 4 of the last 6 Super Bowl winners have been in the top 8 in sacks.

OK, time to get legit. To quit. I couldn’t help myself.

I chose to look at 3 different NFL seasons: the 2 most recent ones (2015 and 2014) and a control group (2005). I chose 2005 for no other reason than that it was before illegal contact, defensive pass interference, and defensive holding were emphasized with such vigor. I looked at trends in passing attempts. Here’s what I found:

  • The difference in passing attempts is staggering. Among the top 10 team passing attempt leaders in the 3 aforementioned NFL seasons, there were 336 more passing attempts in the 2015 cohort compared to 2005, and 306 more passing attempts in the 2014 cohort compared to 2005.
  • Biased because it only involves the top 10? You’d think it natural that the more pass-happy teams in 2014 and 2015 would outweigh 2005 by sheer volume. It actually gets more pronounced as you go down in the rankings. The bottom 10 teams in passing attempt leaders in the 3 aforementioned NFL seasons, there were 534 more passing attempts in the 2015 bottom cohort compared to 2005, and 523 more passing attempts in the 2014 bottom cohort compared to 2005. Teams who had the least passing attempts in each of those seasons (2015 and 2014, compared to 2005) had a larger attempt differential than the teams who threw it the most (2015 and 2014, compared to 2005).
  • In 2005, there were 14 teams who had fewer than 500 passing attempts.
  • In 2014, there were 6; in 2015, there were 5.

Then I looked for raw data in sacks and this is what I found:

  • Total number of sacks in 2005: 1,182
  • Total number of sacks in 2014: 1,212
  • Total number of sacks in 2015: 1,196

So despite at least 870 more passing attempts in 2015 and 829 more passing attempts in 2014, there is a sack differential of 14 and 30, respectively. THIS IS NOT EVEN INCLUDING THE "MIDDLE" 12 TEAMS. What could the pass attempt differential be? 1,000? 1,100? 1,200? 1,500? It just doesn’t add up to me. I started to wonder why.

My initial guesses:

  • There’s way more emphasis on the short passing game that is designed to get the ball out quick, compared to 2005. There simply isn’t enough time for the pass rush to get to the QB. (Interesting research: comparing the amount of different screens and throws behind or around the line of scrimmage, and within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage to compare distribution percentages, 2015 vs. 2005)
  • Offensive linemen, contrary to popular belief, are evolving at an equal, or even higher, rate than defensive linemen.
  • QB’s are better at getting rid of the ball and not taking sacks - historically it may have been "tougher" to take the sack, as wimpy as it looks to awkwardly throw the ball out of bounds with your off-hand just to avoid a sack. But it’s without a doubt smarter.

Do y’all have any suggestions? Help me understand why sacks aren't exploding, while passing attempts do a sexy dance over in the corner! It just ain't right!