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The decline of QB sacks in the NFL

If you watched the Vikings' two wins over the Packers this season, specifically Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen introducing himself to Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers 7.5 times, you might think the sack is alive and well in the NFL.

You'd be wrong.

There have been just 521 sacks in 7,630 pass attempts so far this year, among the lowest rates of sack-success in NFL history, and a far cry from the days when the likes of Deacon Jones dominated overmatched offensive tackles and made life a living hell for quarterbacks.

In fact, this is a story best told through the legend of Jones, the sack specialist extraordinaire whose brutal, head-slapping, QB-pummeling style of football lives on today only in the murky netherworld of myth and in the flickering images of grainy old black & white game film.

The Hall of Fame defensive end was the greatest player of the mighty "Fearsome Foursome" fielded by the L.A. Rams in the 1960s (with Merlin Olsen, Rosey Grier and Lamar Lundy). Jones is also the very man credited with coining "sack" as the term for pillaging the passer.

The exploits of the sack specialists, however, are not well documented. In fact, most sacks are lost to history. They weren't even an "official" stat until 1982. So we have no way to measure the great individual pass rushers, Jones high among them, of the 1960s and 1970s, the golden age of the sack specialist.

Jones essentially lived in statistical anonymity. Here he was, routinely breaching the city walls and sacking the emperors of the sport, but with virtually no credit to go with it. We can assume it was some of that discontent with the anonymity of his position that caused Jones to coin the perfect phrase for his craft.

But, while we have no way of measuring Jones' individual greatness, we do have team sack stats from the 1960s, thanks to resources such as ProFootballReference, NFL.com and the ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia.

And, thanks to these resources, we now know this: the game that Jones lorded over in the 1960s no longer exists. The art of the sack is quickly being legislated from the game in the NFL's blind rush to put skirts on its quarterbacks and produce pinball-sized scores.

The 1964 season was notable for many reasons, namely for the AFL-NFL wars that were rapidly reaching a fever pitch. But the stat geeks among us are interested to discover that the 1964 season was the first in which Deacon Jones reached the Pro Bowl and, perhaps not coincidentally, it was also the height of the sack: NFL quarterbacks were pummeled in the backfield on 11 percent of pass attempts in 1964, the highest rate in modern history (1960-present).

But in today's game, the sack rate is nearly half what it was in 1964:

In 2008, quarterbacks were nailed in the backfield on just 6.2 percent of pass attempts -- the second lowest rate in the history of the game.

In 2007, it was statistically similar: quarterbacks were dropped on just 6.5 percent of pass attempts.

Here in 2009, 6.8 percent of pass attempts have resulted in sacks.

Quarterbacks today, in other words, don't face the kind of pressure that they did in the 1960s. Here's a look at the 10 toughest seasons for quarterbacks, based on sack percentage:

Seven of the 10 sack-leading seasons took place in the 1960s. The 1976 and 1977 seasons, meanwhile, marked the absolute depths of the Dead Ball Era, the seasons so dominated by defenses that the NFL was forced to institute wholesale rules changes before the 1978 season to save the sport from returning to its Stone Age 1930s scoring levels.

But in the effort to open up offenses, the NFL started to close the door on defenses. As a result, sacks are far less common today than they were in the past. Here's a look at the seasons with the lowest rate of sacks. Most of them have taken place this decade and all have come within the past two decades.

Generally speaking, sacks are about 50 percent less common today (roughly 6.5 percent of dropbacks) than they were in the 1960s (9.75 percent of dropbacks).

The decline in sacks coincides quite nicely with the rise of video-game style passing stats. The highest cumulative, league-wide passer ratings have all come this decade:

• 2009 (to date) - 83.9

• 2008 - 83.2

• 2004 - 82.8

• 2007 - 80.9

• 2006 - 80.4

• 2002 - 80.4

With the exception of 2004, the greatest passing seasons were the seasons with the lowest sack rates. Even 2004, the third-best season for passers in history, wasn't too far off the list (7.3% sack rate, 13th lowest on record).

The NFL itself deserves much of the blame for emasculating defenses and rendering defensive players second-rate citizens on the field of play.

The league made its first major effort to open up offense in 1974, but the slew of rule changes that year had little effect. After the 1977 season, the year that offenses just died in the NFL, a new wave of changes made it easier for offensive linemen to pass block and harder for defensive backs to cover receivers. The NFL even banned Deacon Jones' favorite weapon, the head slap, in 1980.

The changes had the intended effect -- scoring quickly shot up in the years that followed. Passing stats also skyrocketed, most notably with Dan Marino in 1984 and the record-setting passer ratings of Joe Montana in the 1980s and Steve Young in the 1990s.

The NFL has put even more pressure on defenses in recent years -- making it harder than ever for defenses to put pressure on quarterbacks. There was the "re-emphasis" of pass interference that followed the 2003 playoffs. And, just this year, there's the ridiculous "Tom Brady Rule." Between these two officiating efforts, it seems defenders can barely even touch receivers or quarterbacks without getting flagged and fined.

Defensive linemen are getting a little sack-shy in the process. Like cattle surrounded by an electric fence, pass-rush specialists have realized that their game has boundaries, boundaries it didn't have in Deacon's day.

Of course, the NFL isn't solely at fault. The game's masterminds have completely reworked our concept of offensive football since the days that Jones ate offensive tackles for Sunday dinner.

Back in the 1960s, as we've chronicled many times, NFL and AFL teams practiced a long-ball style of offense that attacked defenses vertically. Yards per attempt were generally higher in the 1960s than they are today, and yards per completion were much, much higher than they are today.

Quarterbacks in the 1960s also had deeper drops than they do today, and therefore spent more time in the pocket, giving defenders more time to break past blockers.

In an effort to hold defenses at bay, and decrease the impact of speedy, freakish defenders like Jones who came to dominate the sport, we witnessed a sharp change in offensive strategy, defined most notably by the Bill Walsh-Montana 49ers of the 1980s. (It's no coincidence that this historic tandem came together in 1979, in the immediate aftermath of of the rule changes of '78. They were the right men at the right time.)

So today's offenses are defined by a low-risk, short-ball passing game that attacks defenses both horizontally and vertically. Completion percentages are much higher and interception rates are much lower in today's game than they were in the 1960s. Quarterbacks also take shorter drops and make quicker decisions, resulting in less time in the pocket and less time for defenders to take them down.

This change in the style of play is actually evident in the sack stat sheets. Back in the 1960s, sacks were not only more common, they typically yielded bigger losses for offenses than they do today. Note the sharp difference in these two charts, one dominated by the 1960s and the Dead Ball Era of the 1970s, the other dominated by the past decade.

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In other words, in the 1960s and 1970s, the average sack resulted in a loss of nearly 8.5 yards. This decade, the average sack results in the loss of fewer than 6.5 yards (it's also true here in 2009, where the average sack has lost 6.47 yards). It might not seem like much, but it's a sharp percentage difference, and those two yards per sack add up over the course of 1,200 sacks in a season.

Some fans cheer the contemporary style of football in which passers have every advantage over defenders, who have been essentially neutered.

The Cold, Hard Football Facts do not. In fact, the decline and fall of the sack as an art form is unfortunate. After all, the sack is one of the most exciting plays in football. It gives defenses another chance to change the course of the game and it puts defensive players on equal footing with offensive players.

But that's not what the NFL wants: it wants virtual tackling dummies on defense, cannon fodder for the passing-drill practices that pass for modern football.

Jones and the rest of the Fearsome Foursome would barely recognize the game today. In fact, in today's game, the only thing fearsome about NFL defenses are the ways they're getting torched by quarterbacks.

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