By Scott Kacsmar
While the NFL moves into Week 8, a season-long trend for the 2023 season has been a lack of offensive firepower. We are seeing offensive turnovers at a 9-year high, passing touchdowns and offensive yards per game at 15-year lows, and quarterback sacks are at their highest rate in 25 years.
This season’s sack rate is 7.08%, the highest since 1998 when quarterbacks were dropped on 7.23% of their passes.
What is causing this? If you simply wanted to blame the Washington Commanders and New York Giants, the teams that just played a game Sunday with more possessions (27) than points (21), then you would be onto something. The Commanders (40 sacks) and Giants (37 sacks) together bring the NFL’s sack rate up from 6.56% to 7.08% as they have taken 10 or more sacks than the next closest teams.
But you would have to subtract every season’s two worst offenders for that comparison to be fair. Instead, we are going to look at what is happening with quarterback play in the NFL this season that is leading to more sacks, the problems with offensive line play, and a new golden age for pass rushers to exploit this.
History of Sack Rates in Modern NFL
To understand where sack rates are in the NFL in 2023, we have to go back four decades to see the evolution of the sack’s place in the game.
Sacks became an official NFL statistic in 1982, which just so happened to be a 9-game strike season. The sack rate in 1982 was 7.82%, which was not a 9-game fluke as it reached 7.96% in a full season in 1983 and maxed out at 8.40% in 1984. That means when Dan Marino rewrote the record books by throwing for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns in 1984, he did it in a league where quarterbacks were taking a sack on 8.4% of passes.
This was the era of 7-step drops and not a lot of mobile quarterbacks. These passers were looking for deep shots down the field, so they held the ball long, they didn’t have as many short throws baked into the offense, and defenders like Reggie White and Lawrence Taylor were allowed to tee off on quarterbacks.
Only in the early 1990s did we start to see sack rates dip under 7.0% as more offenses adapted the West Coast offense from what Bill Walsh did in San Francisco with quicker, shorter passes, and we also saw the run-and-shoot offense enter the NFL in places like Houston, Detroit, and Atlanta.
The sack rate was just 5.86% in 1994, the beginning of the salary cap era. But things would fluctuate the next few years as some Hall of Fame passers were winding down on their careers, and some mobile players took over like Steve McNair, Kordell Stewart, Jake Plummer, Daunte Culpepper, and Rich Gannon.
In 1998, the sack rate was 7.23%, which is why this season’s rate (7.08%) is aiming to be the highest in 25 years. The last season to break 7.0% in sack rate was 2000 (7.02%).
By 2001, the league was getting ready for another shift. Despite the arrival of Michael Vick and his legs to the league that year, pocket passers started taking over the NFL:
- Tom Brady and the Patriots put together a dink-and-dunk passing game to much success, then brought in more talent in 2007 along with a shotgun-spread look that further revolutionized passing in the NFL.
- Peyton Manning was hitting his prime in Indianapolis, running a no-huddle offense and adjusting plays to his liking with the best ability to get rid of the ball quickly.
- Rich Gannon won an MVP in 2002 with the Raiders in running a shotgun-heavy, pass-happy attack.
- The Bill Walsh coaching tree grew out to include Mike Holmgren, who brought his West Coast offense from Green Bay with Brett Favre to Seattle with Matt Hasselbeck, while Andy Reid took his screens and offensive mind to Philadelphia to help Donovan McNabb.
- Drew Brees was drafted in 2001 and eventually landed in New Orleans with Sean Payton in 2006 where they conducted one of the best offenses of all time.
- Philip Rivers replaced Brees in San Diego in 2006 and was not fond of holding onto the ball long.
- Matt Ryan modeled his playing style after Peyton Manning and brought that to Atlanta in 2008.
The sack rate was 6.88% in 2001, and it never finished above that mark until potentially this season. Things hit an all-time low in 2016 at 5.76%, which is a little odd since that was the season after Peyton Manning (3.13% sack rate is lowest in NFL history) retired in Denver.
But even with the rise of mobile quarterbacks in recent years such as Lamar Jackson, Jalen Hurts, and Justin Fields, the league’s sack rate has averaged out to 6.46% from 2018-2022. It did bottom out again in 2020 (5.93%), but that was because of the crowd-less games played during the pandemic. All offensive numbers were off the charts in 2020, so sacks going down was no surprise either without crowd noise.
But after the sack rate increased by 0.31 percentage points in 2021 and by 0.46 percentage points in 2022, any finish above 7.0% in 2023 would mark three straight years of sack rate going by up 0.3 percentage points – something that has never happened since 1982.
What is the main factor driving up sack rates? You have to start with the quarterbacks.
Sacks Are a Quarterback Stat
One of the best things analytics have done for football is put the blame for sacks on the person usually most responsible: the quarterback.
Many people fall prey to the misconception that sacks are an offensive line stat. They can be, but the quarterback is the one who ultimately has control of how quickly the ball is released, or if it is released at all. A quarterback who holds onto the ball for over 3 seconds on a consistent basis is not doing his line any favors.
There are countless examples of quarterbacks playing behind the same linemen who have wildly different sack rates that are in line with their career rates. Quarterbacks have more year-to-year consistency and control over their sack rate than they do with stats like touchdown passes, yards per attempt, and especially interceptions.
If your offense has a sack problem, you probably have a quarterback problem to deal with first.
A second misconception about sacks is that mobile quarterbacks are better at avoiding sacks. The truth is mobile passers may be the best at avoiding sacks as far as literally dodging a defender in the backfield, but in terms of keeping the number of sacks low, mobile quarterbacks have always been some of the easiest quarterbacks to sack in the NFL.
This goes back to Fran Tarkenton, the O.G. of scrambling, who took the most sacks (570) in NFL history. You never knew where he’d end up on a play, but for as exciting as he was, he still took a lot of sacks.
John Elway was always more mobile than Dan Marino, but Elway took 516 sacks compared to just 270 for Marino. It was Marino’s quick release that made him almost impossible to sack while Elway could do spectacular things but also got himself into trouble. The same was true of Randall Cunningham in Philadelphia where he took the most sacks in 5 different seasons despite being one of the first great runners at the quarterback position.
It was easier to sack Michael Vick (8.9% sack rate) than it ever was Peyton Manning, who never had a sack rate higher than 5.0% in any of his 17 seasons played.
There is one argument for mobile passers today in that they run with the ball more than ever before, and that includes scrambles that are called pass plays that get noted as running plays in the stats. A true sack rate would include scrambles in the denominator along with pass attempts and sacks, which would make today’s quarterbacks have lower true sack rates. But since we lack accurate scramble data for seasons like 2004, 1995, 1986, etc. it would not be possible to compare true sack rates across eras. But this is something to keep in mind when we say the sack rate is at a 25-year high in 2023. That may not be true if scrambles were included.
Mobile quarterbacks can make spectacular plays in avoiding sacks that pocket passers would get buried on, but it becomes a double-edged sword when they try to do too much and take bad sacks that pocket passers would never be caught taking.
NFL sack leaders after Week 7 💪 pic.twitter.com/DSAeFvrZiz— PFF (@PFF) October 24, 2023
Main Factor in 2023: Inexperienced Quarterbacks with Mobility
What do Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Joe Flacco, and Nick Foles all have in common?
Besides ending their time as players in the last decade, they all had a career sack rate under 5.75%, a full percentage point lower than the NFL average since sacks became official in 1982 (6.77%).
While a quarter of the league’s active starters (plus a few backups) can say the same today, that list of passers from a golden era is dominated by pocket passers who got the ball out quickly. Luck and Romo were among the select few who liked to extend plays, and that may explain why they were more frequently injured and did not last as long as their peers.
But NFL quarterbacks in 2023 are uniquely inexperienced, either with their current team or with their career in general. This season started with 15 teams having a starting quarterback who had fewer than 16 starts with that team. Over a quarter of the league had a starter with less than 16 career starts in the NFL period.
It is probably no coincidence that 80% of the top 10 quarterbacks with the lowest sack rate this season have been with their current team since at least 2021. Only Baker Mayfield and Jimmy Garoppolo are on new teams. Mayfield is with a Tampa Bay team that had the lowest sack rate in 2022, and Garoppolo has years of experience in running a Josh McDaniels offense.
Through Week 7, there have been 413 sacks taken by quarterbacks who are under 30 years old in 2023. This is the most ever through Week 7 in the 32-team era since 2002. The previous high was 384 in 2013 and the average for 2002-2022 was 307.9.
Young, inexperienced quarterbacks are prone to taking bad sacks as they adjust to the speed of the game. Right now, the league has a lot of quarterbacks that would apply to. As we talked about in the previous section, mobile quarterbacks also take an egregious number of sacks, and the NFL is filled with mobile quarterbacks now as the position has changed.
There are currently a handful of quarterbacks who have a sack rate of 10% or higher this season, which is a terribly high rate. Note how they have not done well or stayed healthy either as these are the quarterbacks I like to call sack merchants:
- Deshaun Watson, Browns (10.1% sack rate): Already injured multiple times and has struggled in Cleveland since 2022.
- Ryan Tannehill, Titans (10.7% sack rate): Sacks have been a problem throughout his career, and after ending 2022 injured, he is injured again (ankle) and may miss Week 8 against Atlanta.
- Justin Fields, Bears (12.9% sack rate): A thumb injury could keep him out of another game this week as Fields is eyeing a third-straight season with a sack rate above 11.0%.
- Sam Howell, Commanders (13.5% sack rate): It is a miracle Howell has played 100% of the snaps this year as he has taken a league-high 40 sacks already. His 13.5% sack rate is almost identical to the 13.6% sack rate he had in one start as a rookie last year.
- Daniel Jones, Giants (15.6% sack rate): A neck injury has kept him out of the last two games, and it is hard to say he’s shown more this year than backup Tyrod Taylor has behind a lousy line.
Note that Howell is the only one who has not been injured yet, but that may only be temporary. Howell’s 40 sacks through 7 games is the second most in NFL history in a season. He is right between two David Carr seasons in Houston as Carr took 43 sacks for the 2002 Texans and 37 sacks for the 2005 Texans through 7 games.
Carr finished that 2002 season taking an NFL record 76 sacks, which is the record Howell is chasing. With a 17-game season, Howell is on pace for 97 sacks. If Howell takes 5 sacks in his next game against the Eagles, he’ll set a single-season record for the longest streak of games taking 5 sacks (6 games).
Howell may have already shown more promise than a young Carr, but we’ll never see his full potential if Washington does not get this under control with him. The irony is this is an offense coordinated by Eric Bieniemy, who left Kansas City to show he could do the job without Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, and Travis Kelce. Meanwhile, Howell is on pace for 97 sacks and Mahomes has the lowest sack rate (2.6%) in the league and is the favorite to win his third MVP award. The two extremes of the 2023 season.
We’ll keep an eye on Howell’s inglorious chase toward sack history.
Lack of Great Offensive Line Play
Quarterbacks have a lot of control over sacks, but a terrible offensive line is going to make their job much harder. For even the best quarterbacks, instant pressure on a blown assignment is almost certainly going to ruin the play.
The problem is if you ask which offensive line is the worst in the league, you might get 90% of NFL fans picking their team. For what it’s worth, according to ESPN analytics, the Patriots (43%), Bengals (45%), and Saints (45%) are the bottom 3 offensive lines in pass block win rate. The Patriots (Cole Strange) and Saints (Trevor Penning) used first-round picks on offensive linemen in 2022, and they have not been good at all so far.
But Cincinnati’s placement on that list is amusing since the Bengals made the addition of left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. from the Chiefs the centerpiece of their offseason improvement plan. We warned readers in the Cincinnati season preview that Brown is not anywhere on the level of Jonathan Ogden, Anthony Munoz, or Willie Roaf. Brown’s place in history is unique as he is the only NFL player since 1970 to play for three different teams in his first six seasons while making at least four Pro Bowls. But if he was really that good, wouldn’t one of these teams have kept him in town longer?
While Joe Burrow’s calf injury has done the offense no favors, he looks spryer in recent weeks, but the offense is still struggling, and Brown has not been good.
Brown, a third-round pick in 2018 by Baltimore, is another in a long line of underwhelming linemen we were told were supposed to be difference-makers. This has been a problem for a solid decade now as most of the best offensive linemen to enter the NFL did so 10-to-15 years ago. In 2006-07 alone, Andrew Whitworth, Jahri Evans, and Joe Thomas were drafted. In the years since? It’s been rough.
- Jake Long, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft, was often injured and did not live up to the hype of the top pick.
- The 2009 draft was a total flop for offensive tackles taken in the top 8 picks with Jason Smith (Rams), Andre Smith (Bengals), and Eugene Monroe (Jaguars) all failing to meet expectations.
- The 2010 draft was one of the last great drafts for offensive linemen with Trent Williams, Maurkice Pouncey, Mike Iupati, Russell Okung, and Rodger Saffold all having successful careers.
In fact, we still think of Williams, drafted by Washington and now with the 49ers, as the best left tackle in the NFL in 2023.
But 2010 was a long time ago. Where are all the great linemen since, and why does the NFC East seem to have a monopoly on them with the Cowboys and Eagles acquiring Jason Kelce (2011), Tyron Smith (2011), Lane Johnson (2013), and Zack Martin (2014)?
The Eagles drafted Johnson for the right tackle position with the No. 4 pick in the 2013 draft, a class that the Chiefs opened with left tackle Eric Fisher as an underwhelming No. 1 pick, and the Jaguars bombed by taking Luke Joeckel with the No. 2 pick. Johnson is one of the very few linemen drafted since 2013 that you can even consider having a Hall of Fame discussion about down the road.
Someone like David Bakhtiari, drafted in 2013, was a very good left tackle for Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay, but he is always injured now. Bakhtiari has played in just 13 games since 2021. Likewise, Ronnie Stanley was drafted by the Ravens in 2016 with the No. 6 pick, but he is rarely healthy these days, playing in 22 games since 2020. He was drafted ahead of Laremy Tunsil, who many had as the top prospect in 2016. Tunsil has carved out a solid career, but he is not a Hall of Fame-caliber player.
The Colts drafted guard Quenton Nelson in 2018 with a lot of hype and potential. He lived up to it early, making the Pro Bowl and All-Pro team in 2018-20. But since 2021, he has been coasting on that reputation, and the Colts have not performed well along the offensive line, and Nelson’s individual grades have suffered as well.
As far as offensive linemen in the 2020s go, Tristan Wirfs (Buccaneers), Penei Sewell (Lions), and center Creed Humphrey (Chiefs) may be as good as it gets so far.
When veterans like Williams, Smith, Kelce, and Johnson retire, the league better start developing the young linemen, or there will be almost no greatness up front when you watch games. Would Philadelphia’s Tush Push work so well if Kelce and Johnson weren’t on the line? Maybe we’ll find out if the NFL doesn’t ban it before they move on.
But when you watch these other lines try to run that play, it looks awful and is not nearly as successful. If teams want to talk about building in the trenches first, they better start finding offensive linemen who are worth keeping around for the long term.
New Golden Era for Pass Rushers
With a bunch of young quarterbacks running into sacks and not enough quality linemen to protect them, this should lead to some big sack numbers for the pass rushers in today’s NFL.
Fortunately, the under-30 pass-rushing talent in the league this season is excellent with some future Hall of Famers showing off and some young players showing promise too, including:
- T.J. Watt, Steelers (29)
- Myles Garrett, Browns (28)
- Danielle Hunter, Vikings (29) [currently leads NFL with 9.0 sacks]
- Chris Jones, Chiefs (29)
- Micah Parsons, Cowboys (24)
- Nick Bosa, 49ers (26)
- Josh Allen, Jaguars (26)
- Maxx Crosby, Raiders (26)
- Trey Hendrickson, Bengals (29)
- Haason Reddick, Eagles (29)
- Brian Burns, Panthers (25)
- Aidan Hutchinson, Lions (23)
- Chase Young, Commanders (24)
- Bradley Chubb, Dolphins (27)
- Josh Sweat, Eagles (26)
- Jalen Carter, Eagles (22)
- Will Anderson, Texans (22)
If Hunter (80.0) and Garrett (82.0) can notch a few more sacks this season, they will join active peers Von Miller (98.0), Chandler Jones (96.0), Aaron Donald (85.5), and T.J. Watt (85.5) on what would be a list of just 15 players to reach 85.0 sacks before their age-30 season since 1982. Miller and Donald are now in their 30s as they wrap up their future first-ballot Hall of Fame careers.
One of the only other big-name pass rushers in his 30s still left is Khalil Mack, who is 32 this season with the Chargers, and he took advantage of Raiders quarterback Aidan O’Connell’s inexperience by racking up 6 sacks in one game in Week 4 against his former team.
“Bigger, faster, stronger” certainly applies to these edge rushers. There are things that Garrett did on Sunday against the Colts that few players in NFL history could match. Not only did he get strip-sacks, but he jumped over the line to block a field goal for his team.
This is why we are starting to see these edge rushers make what was once thought to be the only “quarterback money” in this league. Nick Bosa signed a 5-year deal worth $170 million to lock him up with the 49ers through his prime. The next batch of great edge rushers will likely surpass that amount when it’s their time for an extension.
It is almost impossible these days to win a Super Bowl without a strong pass rush led by a defender you can trust to consistently produce.
The 2022 Chiefs delivered with Chris Jones and the defense sacking Joe Burrow 5 times in the AFC Championship Game, including a crucial third down late in a tied game. They also got Jalen Hurts to cough up a fumble for a touchdown in the Super Bowl.
The 2021 Rams, led by Aaron Donald and Von Miller, caused havoc to every quarterback faced that postseason. They pressured Jimmy Garoppolo into a game-ending interception in the championship game, then they sacked Burrow 7 times in the Super Bowl, and Donald applied the key pressure on fourth down to clinch the win.
The 2020 Buccaneers, who had a trio of players with 8.0 sacks that season, pressured Mahomes 29 times in the Super Bowl, a record for the big game. They made Mahomes scramble around behind the line of scrimmage for just shy of 500 yards that night, the most by any quarterback in a game since 2016.
After finding a franchise quarterback, finding an edge rusher is the next most important part of team building in the NFL today.
Conclusion: Is This the Sack Merchant Era?
The good news about playing quarterback is that with experience, the sack rate should come down. Even Tom Brady had a 9.0% sack rate in 2001, his first season starting. If some of the young players who are struggling stick around long enough to improve, we’ll see lower sack rates.
The players who can’t help themselves from holding onto the ball too long won’t be long for this game. The Commanders could move on from Howell next season, and he won’t survive this season if he keeps getting hit like this anyway. Similar things can be said about Jones in New York even though they signed him to that baffling extension. The Bears also could be on the hunt for their next quarterback if Fields does not show improvement this year.
But the good news is that Mahomes is excellent at avoiding sacks. Tua Tagovailoa is getting the ball out faster than anyone this year in Miami. Josh Allen has the 4th-lowest sack rate (3.9%) this season. Justin Herbert is usually just over 5.0% in sack rate. Trevor Lawrence seems to have the right level of awareness with a 5.0% sack rate in Jacksonville.
We still have top quarterbacks who are not sack merchants. But even someone who takes an above-average rate of sacks can be fun to watch as long as they are still efficient in other areas. Think of Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson in their heydays. But even Roethlisberger is a good example of how a veteran can change his playing style. In his first decade, Roethlisberger’s sack rate was 8.2%. He changed his playing style in 2014 and the sack rate dropped to 3.9%, extending his career to 18 seasons.
Players adapt. It’s just that right now there are too many young quarterbacks playing behind shaky lines and too many good edge rushers to escape. Embrace it, and who knows, 2023 may be the answer to a trivia question some day when someone asks which season was it when a Washington quarterback took 100 sacks?