By Mick Warshaw
Cold, Hard Football Facts Sultan of Sacks
Football is all about the quarterback. This simple truism has held since the advent of the forward pass, and at The Cold Hard Football Facts we have been able to codify this with Real Quarterback Rating Differential, the stat that correlates to victory more closely than anything besides the scoreboard.
Of course, defenses have a say in things, and they possess plenty of weapons to force quarterbacks into errors. They disguise coverages, roll zones and, of course, send blitzes.
Mostly, they try to crush the quarterback.
Ever since David “Deacon” Jones coined the term, sacks have been a high-profile defensive benchmark that casual fans and experts alike have pointed to as a measure of a defense’s efficacy.
The NFL started tracking sacks officially in 1982, and the men who have been most proficient at generating them are consistently among the highest paid players on the defensive side of the ball.
Noted sack-master Lawrence Taylor remains the NFL’s last defensive player to win the MVP award (1986) as well.
Here at The Cold Hard Football Facts, we aren’t interested in which stats produce paychecks – we are interested in which stats produce wins.
It’s become a cliché that defenses must get after the passer to win football games. Talking heads will frequently dismiss a team’s chances if they don’t have a player or two capable of posting double-digit sack seasons.
In fact, some still argue that Eli Manning, despite his two Super Bowl MVP awards, was carried to his recent championships by an irresistible pass rush. We want to know if they are right.
Since we are always on a quest for greater enlightenment here at CHFF, we are going to take a deep dive into sacks data and shine the light of truth into previously unexplored caverns of ignorance.
To date, we have mapped three complete seasons of data – the last three – and already, some interesting trends are beginning to emerge.
The first thing that jumped out is that the best team in the 2012 regular season, the Denver Broncos, led the league with 52 sacks (tied with St. Louis). Not only that, they allowed only 21 sacks, one more than the Giants, who paced the league in that category.
Denver’s sack differential of +31 in 2012 was the best in the NFL by a landslide, and it reflected in their 13-3 record.
Then, when the Broncos needed pass rush and protection the most, the Ravens came in and won the pass rush battle by a 3-1 count, and the Broncos lost.
On the flip side, the runaway league worst ratio of -30 belonged to the Jaguars and their pathetic 2-14 campaign, another NFL worst for Jacksonville in 2012.
In 2011, the league leader in sack differential at +20 was the New York Giants. They won the Super Bowl.
Over the last three seasons there were 768 regular season NFL games played. In 139 of those games, teams had the same number of sacks. In one the score was tied. In the other 628, the team that registered more sacks won 434 times, for a 69.11% winning percentage.
The leaders in sack differential during that time were the Giants (+63), who went 28-20 and won a Super Bowl. Next best were the Patriots (+29), who posted a league-best 39-9 record over that time and made a Super Bowl appearance.
The two worst teams were Jacksonville (-55) and Arizona (-48), who combined to win 33 games, six fewer than the Patriots alone in that span.
The only team with an even ratio during those three years was San Diego, who also happened to be the only team to go .500 (24-24) over that time.
Green Bay Packers
Kansas City Chiefs
New England Patriots
New Orleans Saints
New York Giants
New York Jets
San Diego Chargers
San Francisco 49ers
St. Louis Rams
Given that fairly strong 69.11% figure and the results of those five teams, it seems to follow that a look at leaders in sack differential would generally reside at the top of the standings, and the case of the Broncos and Jaguars last year and the Giants in 2011 bears that out.
Strong contradictory evidence is found easily enough, though: the 15-1 Packers squad of 2011 posted a -12. That seems barely possible, but even wilder is what happened in 2010. The Chicago Bears had the worst differential in the NFL (-22), and won the NFC North at 11-5.
It is true that the 2011 Super Bowl champion Giants led the NFL in the regular season in sack differential at +20 (tied with the Bengals), but those Giants only finished 9-7, before posting an even ratio on their four game playoff run. They were “out-sacked” by both the 49ers and Patriots.
The champion Packers squad finished at +9 for the season, +3 for the postseason while the Ravens championship team was -1 in the regular season and also +3 in the playoffs.
Given the strong correlation to victory on a game-by-game basis, how does the data seem so inconsistent for teams on a full season basis? That’s what we aim to find out.
In the coming weeks, we will be analyzing individual box scores over these seasons, looking for trends in individual and team performance that can tell us why sacks sometimes seem to be the story of a game or team and sometimes seem to not matter.
Take the strange case of the 2010 Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs won the AFC West with a 10-6 record in 2010, had a scoring differential of +40 and a sack differential of +7. Kansas City ranked 30th in pass attempts, and paced the NFL in both rushes and rushing yards. Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles spearheaded a dynamic ground game that averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
All those carries (and lack of passes) mean that, while the Chiefs posted a gross positive differential, its sack rate differential was actually a slight negative (-0.02131%, for those interested), so the pass rush in KC was not as good as its opponents’.
There are also numerous instances of teams having obvious reasons for losing the game despite the pass rush winning its battles.
Sticking with 2010, it’s not hard to figure out why the Colts lost to the Chargers despite getting to Philip Rivers more, since Peyton Manning threw two touchdowns to the guys wearing lightning bolts.
We are also going to find out about sack situations. A guy who gets a sack on the first play of the game only to see the quarterback throw a 75-yard touchdown pass on the next play didn’t do much to help his team win. A guy who gets a sack on third-and-5 to knock a team out of field goal range late in a tie game, on the other hand, did strong work.
Inevitably, pressures will come into play as well. Turnovers are the best result for a defense, and they can come two ways from a good pass rush – sack fumbles, and hurried throws that result in interceptions. It is not likely a coincidence that Cardinals quarterbacks chucked 21 passes to the wrong jerseys last year, when they were eating turf a league high 58 times.
Except maybe it is, because Aaron Rodgers took over 50 sacks last year for the second time in his career last year and is the all-time leader in interception rate (1.7%).
So much data to scrutinize, so much film to watch – so many Cold, Hard Football Facts to be revealed. This should be fun.