Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has consistently been among the most sacked quarterbacks in the league through each of his first five seasons in the league, with a lot of discussion about his “lack of pocket presence” among fans and analysts. The common discussion, and it is the same for any quarterback who is oft-sacked, is that the quarterback should have done something differently, whether it is stepping up in the pocket, rolling out, or throwing away the ball. How true is that discussion, however?
In 2016, Tannehill saw the sack numbers plummet as the offensive line started to play better. Pre Snap Reads’ Cian Fahey recently released his “Quarterback Catalogue 2017,” broke down the league’s starting quarterbacks, analyzing the “avoidable” and “unavoidable” sacks for each passer. He defines “avoidable” sacks as either “missed reads” where the quarterback either does not use his hot read on a blitz, looks at but does not throw to an open receiver, or misread the defense and did not see an open receiver; “ran into sack” where the quarterback drops his eyes from the receivers and runs from a clean pocket into the defense; or “process in pocket” where a quarterback keeps his eyes down field, but moves into the wrong spot in the pocket or his footwork and throwing motion moves him into a defender.
Unavoidable sacks are defined as either a “beaten blocker” category, where an offensive lineman, running back, or tight end are physically beaten which does not allow a quarterback to throw the ball; “blown assignment” where a player does not react to his assignment (often on stunts or blitz pickup); “coverage sack” is where the defense effectively covers the receivers, and the quarterback is forced to take the sack (Fahey admits a quarterback can throw the ball away “in theory” but not always “in reality); and “botched snap” where a bad snap forces the quarterback into a sack.
Where does Tannehill stand between avoidable and unavoidable sacks? The Dolphins’ quarterback led the league in 2016 with just one avoidable sack. He had 26 unavoidable sacks, according to Fahey’s analysis. Fahey writes in his introduction to the “Sacks” chapter:
Ever notice how it’s the quarterbacks with the bad offensive lines who always get criticized for having poor pocket presence? As a wider audience we tend to just blame the quarterback when sacks pile up. During games we might point out the one or two plays where he had no chance to make a play but after that everything is attributed to the quarterback.
Adam Gase learned this after his Dolphins faced the Titans during the season. He was peppered with questions about Ryan Tannehill’s performance after taking so many sacks. Gase had a simple but effective rebuttal. He told the assembled media that he knew what the plays were supposed to look like and that Tannehill wasn’t the reason they were getting negative results.
As it turned out, Tannehill only had one sack all season that he could have realistically avoided. It was a play at the end of the season when the ball slipped out of his hand.
Breaking down the sacks for Tannehill even further, Fahey has the one avoidable sacks listed under the “process in pocket” category, with the other 26 sacks listed under the various unavoidable categories: 18 in “beaten blocker,” five in “blown assignment,” and three as “coverage sacks.” Tannehill’s one avoidable sack was the fewest sacks in that category in the league, tied with Matt Barkley, who played in seven games and was sacked just six times on the year. The 3.7 percent avoidable sack percentage for Tannehill is nearly two percentage points better than the second place quarterback, Philip Rivers, who had two avoidable sacks and 34 unavoidable sacks in 2016.
Tannehill’s pocket presence “issues” have either been vastly overblown through his first five years - a product of having a less-than-stellar offensive line throughout that time - or it suddenly developed in 2016. Tannehill seems to know what to do in the pocket to avoid a sack, either by making the right read, moving the right way in the pocket/roll out, or getting rid of the ball on a throw away. Even as reporters continue to ask about how Tannehill can get better at avoiding sacks, Fahey demonstrates that, it does not seem to be on Miami’s quarterback nearly 97 percent of the time.
If you are interested in checking out Fahey's book - and it is definitely worth your reading time - you can purchase it here. The book has way more than we could ever talk about here, including an entire section just focused on breaking down Tannehill (4th in the NFL in accuracy? Tannehill’s success is more on his supporting cast than on anything the quarterback can do?), as well as league-wide sections on interceptable passes ("For the second year in a row Ryan Tannehill finds himself towards the top of the non-QB interception numbers..."), accuracy percentages, depth of throws, failed receptions, created receptions, adjustments, and more. Again, definitely worth a look at some good, in-depth analysis of exactly what is happening at the quarterback position around the league.