“You throw the ball so fast,” Shaun Phillips said to Peyton Manning after a play in Week 12 of the 2008 regular season.
Phillips should know what he is talking about being both a player with at least seven sacks in each of his previous four seasons and a player who has failed to sack Peyton Manning in four consecutive games from 2007 to 2008 despite 190 pass attempts from Manning.
Another player who should know a thing or two is Jared Allen, who has had at least 7.5 sacks in each of his five seasons in the league, including three seasons with at least 11, and only has one sack in two games against Manning in 2007 and 2008 despite 74 pass attempts from Manning.
When asked to rate the toughest to sack quarterbacks in the league in 2007 by the Kansas City Star, Allen said of Manning: “He just gets rid of the ball so fast. Not only are you rushing against a tackle, you're rushing against him.”
Perhaps by coincidence or not, both of these players faced Manning in the 2007 regular season during a three-game stretch in which the Colts offense was plagued by injuries of ridiculous proportions.
During that stretch, the Colts played with as many as two or even three starting offensive linemen unable to play due to injury, which included both offensive tackles, Tony Ugoh and Ryan Diem. Adding insult to injury, one or both of the primary backups at offensive tackle, Charlie Johnson and Daniel Federkeil, were unable to play due to injury as well.
Making things even worse, the Colts were without wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Anthony Gonzalez—even tight end Dallas Clark at one point—and a backup wide receiver Roy Hall as well. This forced the Colts to go to the practice squad to sign players to run patterns with Reggie Wayne and lowly backup wide receiver Aaron Moorehead.
Manning’s numbers certainly suffered as a result of the barrage of injuries, including an infamous six-interception game against the Chargers, and only picked up upon Anthony Gonzalez’s return in the last of the three games—but how often was he sacked?
Manning was only sacked eight times over the three-game span in 128 drop backs (pass attempts + sacks) for a sack rate of 6.3 percent. Compare that to the league average sack rate in 2007 of 6.1 percent while considering the injuries to the Colts offensive line and receivers. Also consider that two of the three defenses faced were ranked in the Top 10 for sacks that season and had a pass rusher with at least 12.5 sacks on the season.
The Colts offensive line was also hit hard to begin the 2008 season. The Colts were without three and even four starters on the offensive line in the first three weeks of 2008.
To make matters worse, the Colts were sending out two rookies, Jamey Richard and Steve Justice, they had just drafted in the sixth and seventh rounds to pick up the bulk of the playing time. Richard and Justice both played in all three games, with Richard starting two and Justice starting one.
Unfortunately, it was during these three games that the Colts faced Pro Bowl defensive linemen Tommie Harris, Kevin Williams, Pat Williams, Jared Allen, and John Henderson.
With the additional problem of Manning still being in the process of recovering from multiple knee surgeries late in the offseason, his numbers certainly took a hit—but even playing underweight and hobbled, how often was he sacked?
Manning was only sacked five times over the three-game span in 125 drop backs for a sack rate of 4.0 percent. Compare that to the league average sack rate of 5.9 percent in 2008 while considering the injuries to the Colts offensive line and the lack of experience of their backups in addition to the list of Pro Bowl defensive linemen faced.
You won’t see sacks accounted for in passing yards, touchdowns, completion percentage, yards-per-attempt, or quarterback rating, but it is a crucial part of the passing game of which the quarterback plays a much larger role than most people realize.
There is a reason why Peyton Manning takes so few sacks season after season despite turnover caused by free agency and severe injuries like in the cases of 2007 and 2008. It’s not the luck of being the only quarterback in the league with consistently brilliant pass protection season after season regardless of circumstance; it’s because as Phillips and Allen said, he gets the ball out so quickly.
You can’t sack a quarterback if he doesn’t have the ball in his hand.
Remember those relatively low sack rates of Manning in those three-game stretches of severe injuries to the Colts offensive line in 2007 and 2008.
Consider how the Colts sack rate suddenly fell to 3.7 percent in Manning’s rookie season from 10.6 percent, 7.4 percent, and 10.1 percent in the three seasons preceding Manning’s arrival.
Manning continued the trend throughout his career with personal sack rates of 2.6 percent, 3.4 percent, 5.0 percent, 3.7 percent, 3.1 percent, 2.5 percent, 3.6 percent, 2.5 percent, 3.9 percent, and 2.5 percent from 1999 to 2008.
Consider how that consistently low sack rate survived the losses of key offensive linemen like Adam Meadows, Rick DeMulling, Jake Scott, and Tarik Glenn over the years to free agency and retirement, as well as the recent injury losses of Ryan Diem for six games in 2007, Jeff Saturday for four games in 2008, and Ryan Lilja for 16 games in 2008.
Consider the cases of quarterbacks like Rob Johnson and David Carr, who share a reputation for taking too long to get rid of the ball. Johnson had a 14.2 percent sack rate in four seasons with the Bills from 1998 to 2001. The other quarterbacks on the Bills during those same seasons had a combined sack rate of 4.3 percent.
Carr had a 10.7 percent sack rate in five seasons with the Texans from 2002 to 2006. When Matt Schaub replaced him as the team’s starter however, he had a sack rate of only 5.5 percent in two seasons from 2007 to 2008. Sage Rosenfels, who backed up Carr in 2006 and Schaub in 2007 and 2008, had only a 3.4 percent sack rate in his three seasons with the Texans.
Another, perhaps more noteworthy, example is Ben Roethlisberger, who has a career sack rate of 9.2 percent in five seasons.
Some will fault the Steelers offensive line for Roethlisberger’s high sack rate, but Roethlisberger does have a reputation for holding onto the ball too long. He is often able to get away with doing so because of his size and athleticism, and the strategy does often lead to big plays because his receivers have more time to get open down the field—but it does lead to more sacks.
Roethlisberger’s offensive line hardly looks great now, but he did have three Pro Bowl offensive linemen on his line in the first three seasons of his career: Alan Faneca, Jeff Hartings, and Marvel Smith.
The three linemen combined for six Pro Bowl selections as well as four first-team All-Pro selections in those three seasons. Faneca also chipped in another Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro selection in 2007 as well before leaving the Steelers in free agency.
We would certainly expect to see a sharp contrast in Roethlisberger’s sack rate with those guys protecting him, but we don’t. Roethlisberger had a sack rate of 8.8 percent in his first three seasons in the league with that trio compared to a 9.6 percent sack rate in his past two seasons, with no Hartings in either season, no Faneca in 2008, and Smith missing four games in 2007 and 11 games in 2008.
In fact, Roethlisberger’s 8.9 percent sack rate in 2008 without Faneca and with Smith missing more games was actually better than his 10.4 percent sack rate in 2007.
Furthermore, in three seasons from 2001 to 2003 before Roethlisberger’s arrival, Tommy Maddox and Kordell Stewart combined for a sack rate of 6.5 percent.
So why are sacks so important to the passing game if they are not accounted for in individual passing yards or quarterback rating?
Sacks have a tendency to kill drives. Taking a sack on first or second down generally puts the offense in a tough position to convert downs and move the chains.
From 2001 to 2008, including all regular season and playoff games, sets of downs were converted at a rate of 63 percent when there was no sack involved. However, a single sack dropped the average success rate for converting downs all the way to 19 percent.
A second sack dropped the success rate to under 5 percent and not a single set of downs was converted after three straight sacks. Overall, that makes for an 18 percent success rate when one or more sacks were involved on a set of downs versus a 63 percent success rate with no sacks.
From the perspective of drives as a whole, drives without sacks averaged 1.85 points while drives with at least one sack averaged only 0.88 points per drive, i.e. less than half as many.
Avoiding sacks, and the fumbles that can often accompany them, is one of the most underappreciated aspects of playing the quarterback position in the NFL.
We know about all the yards and touchdowns Dan Marino threw in his career, and about how Peyton Manning is busy climbing those career lists, but it’s really their career sack rates that we should be talking about.
Consider how Dan Marino and Peyton Manning’s 3.1 percent and 3.3 percent career sack rates compare to some others.
Tom Brady has a career sack rate of 5.3 percent and Joe Montana had one of 5.5 percent. Brett Favre had a career sack rate of 4.8 percent and John Elway had one of 6.6 percent. Troy Aikman had a career sack rate of 5.2 percent and Steve Young had one of 7.9 percent. Jim Kelly and Warren Moon both had career sack rates of 6.3 percent.