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From Mongo to Mack: A historical look at Bears’ quarterback sacks

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A deep dive into the Chicago Bears history with the quarterback sack.

Detroit Lions v Chicago Bears
Meet me at the QB! Adewale Ogunleye, Brian Urlacher, and Alex Brown all converge on Jon Kitna in 2006
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

“Sacking the quarterback is like devastating a city or you cream a multitude of people. I mean it’s just like if you put all the offensive players in one bag and I take a baseball bat and beat on the bag.” Deacon Jones.

There’s something particularly sweet about a sack. Whether it’s a power move from an interior rusher or a speed rush around the end, when the quarterback ends the play with his back on the ground and the ball behind the line of scrimmage, there’s a good chance I’ve yelled something loudly enough to draw looks from surrounding tables. The sack is, by definition, a negative play for the offense. Sacks on first down lead to the drive ending with no further progress more times than not (>50%) and sacks on second down end drives more than three fourths of the time. Sacks are drive killers, and the more drives a defense can kill, the better position it puts itself in for a win.

Sacks are an important stat to keep track of as a team and individually. The stat has only been officially around since 1982, unfortunately, but I wanted to take a look at some of the team history with the stat and track some of the team’s outstanding individual performances as well. That led to a few other questions that I’ve tried to address as they popped up. Mainly, I wanted to see how this relatively new stat looks in team history and if there are any current Bears we should keep our eyes on as they rack up quarterback takedowns.

Team Sacks

In the chart below, team sacks are overlaid by the defensive coordinator’s tenure, written across the top and shaded on the chart. Recall that 1982 is a strike year (9 games) and it’s quick to see just how ferocious the Buddy Ryan years were.

Buddy Ryan’s squads were bloodthirsty
Jeff Berckes

After the mid-80’s defenses started to calm down, most years landed in a band between high 20’s and low 40’s with the exception of the terrible last ride of Dick Jauron / Greg Blache’s squad (18) and last year’s 50 sack club led by Khalil Mack. In fact, last year’s mark of 50 was the best sack season since 1987 and that squad was seemingly on track for even higher numbers before pulling back a bit before the playoffs.

Naturally, the next question is how does that relate to the rest of the league? The next chart shows the league high in sacks (blue), league low (red), and the average (mean in grey) with the Bears season total shown with the navy and orange striped boxes. One note: I did not count the Bears as a minimum or maximum value so if they led the league in sacks in a given year (1984, 1987), the 2nd highest total appears on the blue line. The same was done for the low, red line. However, the Bears totals were included in the calculation of the mean for the grey line.

Bears are one of the most successful franchises in accumulating QB sacks
Jeff Berckes

Most years the Bears total hovers around the mean. That’s not surprising as most teams will be near the average rather than the poles, as these things tend to cluster near the mean. But if we dig in a little deeper, the Bears land in between the 25th percentile and 75th percentile in 20 of the 37 seasons (54%), consistent with where the average expectancy for a typical franchise would be (50%). However, the Bears have only been in the lowest quartile in 4 seasons (11%) and have 13 total seasons at the 75th percentile or higher (35%). As a whole, the Bears have been a successful franchise relative to league average in sacks. In fact, the Bears (1496) have the 4th most sacks of any franchise behind the Eagles (1628), Saints (1548), and Steelers (1533). One note before we move on – that league low in 2018 (the red dot sitting at 13 sacks) belongs to the Oakland Raiders, who traded away Khalil Mack to the Bears who finished with 12.5 sacks in 12 healthy games (14 starts) for the Bears. ~*Shrugs~*

One thing you might have noticed is that the average sacks per team per season hovers in the mid to upper 30’s for most of the last 30 years. There are a few things going on that are pulling in opposite directions. First, we know that the average number of passes per team is on the rise. The average number of passes per team in a typical game lingered somewhere in the 31-32 range in the 1980s, accelerating to 35-36 in the last decade. That additional 4 passes might not seem like much, but that’s an extra 2,000 drop-backs per season across the league. It would be reasonably expected, therefore, that the number of sacks would go up at a similar rate, but we’ve already showed that the sack totals have remained steady (and are slightly declining, if anything). So what gives?

The league-wide sack rate (percentage of pass plays resulting in a sack) was around 8% in the 80’s when the Bears were terrorizing quarterbacks. In the last decade, the sack rate has dropped to around 6%. The game has certainly changed in the last 30 years to help that rate drop. Spread offenses put more pressure on the offensive line to hold up, yes, but offer more options for the quarterback to get the ball out quickly. Rule changes have opened up the middle of the field, providing QBs with easier throws. Combine that with the west coast offense principles of timing and short routes, and it’s easy to see why the sack rate has been on a steady decline.

In fact, it may be surprising that the rate hasn’t dropped even lower than 6% given the rules to protect quarterbacks and the emphasis on wide open offense. I have a few ideas as to why:

· NFL defenses have put a premium on rushing the passer shown by their investment in terms of draft capital and salary. That has, in turn, pushed more elite athletes into learning those positions.

· The proliferation of spread offenses in college has eroded the NFL readiness of offensive linemen, creating a more pronounced gap in skill than previous decades. This has been exacerbated by some team’s willingness to find cap savings along the offensive line by forgoing mid-tier veterans and allowing underdeveloped rookies to play in order to afford expensive quarterback contracts (see: Seattle). Add that to the decline in the number of padded practices with the most recent CBA and a fair case can be made that offensive line play is in a steady decline.

· Large, beefeater nose tackles have mostly been replaced by smaller, quicker players that can provide an interior pass rush, adding to the pressure totals. With teams deemphasizing the running game, fewer of these big defensive tackles stick on rosters.

· Defensive schemes know how important these negative plays are and continue to adapt and evolve to manufacture a pass rush. They are, after all, trying to win as well. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

It will be interesting to see if passing attempts or sack percentage plateau or continue on their current trajectories. While it’s easy to imagine those pass attempts continuing their ascension, we’ve already seen Baltimore approach their teambuilding completely different than the new normal by building around the running game of Lamar Jackson. As defenses get smaller and quicker to handle increased passes, more teams might try to buck the trend and build a big, beefy running game. That’s just basic game theory at work, where it becomes easier and cheaper to build a winner in an unconventional way than trying to imitate with inferior ingredients.

Individual Standouts

Let’s get into the best sack artists in team history. Below is a graph of the top ten career sack leaders in Chicago Bears team history plus Akiem Hicks and Khalil Mack, who I personally believe will be in the top ten soon. Each single season total is represented by the corresponding marker for each player in the key. That player’s career total sack count is listed after his name.

Top Ten sack masters in team history with Hicks and Mack hot on the trail
Jeff Berckes

The career totals of a few players are limited due to the statistic not being official until their careers had started including Dan Hampton (1979) and Otis Wilson (1980), not to mention many all-time greats who would have accumulated noteworthy totals. Many of the career Bears leaders had success at other stops along the way, but this only captures sacks in a Bears uniform. Julius Peppers (159.5) and Trace Armstrong (106) were incredibly good pass rushers and had the bulk of their success elsewhere. Akiem Hicks only had 9.5 between New Orleans and New England before arriving in Chicago whereas Khalil Mack racked up 40.5 in Oakland before donning navy and orange.

One thing that should pop out immediately is that Richard Dent was the man (orange circles). Dent owns 5 of the top 8 single season performances, the single season record of 17.5, and the career mark of 124.5. How it took him as long as it did to get into the Hall of Fame is beyond me. (Note: Dent’s 1990 mark of 12 sacks is tied with Mark Anderson (2006) and Mike Hartenstine (1983), but neither player is in the top ten overall in team history and therefore not shown on the graph)

I’d venture to guess that the average Bears fan would not have guessed Jim Flanigan to rank in the top ten in team history as the defensive tackle toiled in the trenches during one of the worst stretches in franchise history. Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye were an underappreciated pair working opposite each other in the 2000’s. Steve McMichael, arguably the most underappreciated player in modern Bears history, was consistently disruptive and durable in his 13 years with Chicago. It’s nice to recognize those names alongside the Hall of Famers Dent, Hampton, and Brian Urlacher.

Finally, let’s get to Hicks and Mack. Akiem Hicks has put up consistent totals in his 3 seasons in Chicago and has shown no signs of slowing down. In fact, he benefits from now having Mack to provide quality matchups and a strong secondary to allow him to get home on more of his pressures. If Hicks is able to maintain his current production for the next two seasons, he’ll move above Peppers and Otis Wilson and into the top ten.

I have bigger goals in mind for Mack. In 12 healthy games (14 starts) last season, Mack put up 12.5 sacks, which is tied for the third best season in team history. Assuming a healthy season in 2019, Mack could threaten Dent’s single season mark at 17.5. Two productive seasons from Mack will almost certainly put him into the top ten in team history and could vault him all the way into 4th ahead of Alex Brown.

If we allow ourselves to dream a little bit and project Mack’s career using some of the game’s best pass rushers as a template, many of those guys played for 12-15 years or more like Peppers (17) and Bruce Smith (19). Another 7-10 years of terror for NFC North quarterbacks could potentially translate into another 100+ sacks for Mack. With so many things that can change over the course of a decade, it’s not a bet I’d be willing to make, but the markers are there for a great player to rack up big totals.

Ultimately, I believe that Mack will get to 3rd place on the all-time Bears list quickly (more than 57 sacks by the end of 2021) and that if he signs an extension to keep him here through the next phase of his career, he will top 100 in a Bears uniform. As for Dent, I think his career mark is going to be incredibly difficult to break, but I am not willing to rule it out. For now, it will be fun to see what Mack can do and if he can take over the single season team record.

Find me on Twitter @gridironborn