Decline of sack (cont.)
The NFL's effort to emasculate defenses
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.
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.
Defenders turned tackling dummies
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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