1982 was a year filled with firsts. Disney’s EPCOT Center opened it’s doors, the first issue of USA Today was published, Michael Jackson released his Thriller album and E.T. was flying high. Buried beneath it all was a change that would change the careers and fatten the pockets of many an NFL lineman. It was the year a sack became an official NFL statistic. Without it, guys like 2013 Hall of Fame inductee Warren Sapp might not have been given the recognition they deserve. It’s hard to imagine football without the sack, so is it possible that in a few years it will be hard to imagine a game without quarterback pressures and hits?
A player in the forefront of the quest to add quarterback pressures and hits is Chidi Ahanotu. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end played along side Sapp on what was one of the best defensive units to ever play the game. In fact, it was a dispute between the two former teammates which actually sets the stage for a conversation about expanding stat keeping for defensive linemen. “Warreneludes in his book (Sapp Attack) to the fact of him making fun of me about my restaurant name. It was named Sacks. But since I was known for pressures and hits more than sacks on my stat sheet, Warrenkidded that my restaurant be renamed Pressures.”
The joke was a jab at Ahanotu given Warrenhad the upper hand by owning the only stat which mattered in the history books. But in what is becoming a growing trend, more defensive linemen are referencing their ability to force quarterbacks into unnerving situations when it’s time to talk contract. Seymour Siwoff, the noted Elias Sports Bureau statistician is reported as stating the only reason sacks were adopted in the first place is due to the increased number of incentive clauses and bonuses being built into contracts. According to a NY Times article published in January of 1982, the average salary of defensive linemen was $92,996 per year. Also helping at the time was competition from the USFL, which caused annual average salaries in the NFL to jump from $90,412 in 1982 to $112,967 in 1983. (Playing for Dollars: Labor Relations and the Sports Business, by Paul D. Staudohar 1986).
It’s not just current players who are pushing for recognition, but former players as well. Ahanotu himself sent a missive to former NFLPA representative Gene Upshaw, pressing him to advance the quest to add pressures and hits as official stat lines. As he puts it, “teams would pass the ball so quick as to avoid getting sacked by us, that more often than not we resulted in pressures and hits rather than sacks. While my team financially awarded me and recognized my efforts in obtaining pressures and hits, the NFL did not. So often in our game of football, the offense is stalled and disrupted by quarterback pressures and hits, often resulting in a turnover on downs and interceptions. Defensive backs and linebackers also benefit in accumulating stats of interceptions and pass defended as result from the defensive lines’ quarterback pressure and hits. With so many benefiting and being affected by the defensive line’s hits and pressures, it is hard pressed for me to understand why the NFL would be okay with not including it as an official stat.”
It’s hard to argue Ahanotu’s platform considering some of the stats currently acknowledged by the stat keepers. For example, linemen are given credit for assisted tackles. Whether they were the initiators of contact or came in to seal the deal, the bottom line is they needed help in the act. By this rationale, couldn’t it be argued a quarterback forced out of the pocket and into the arms of a fellow teammate should count as an assisted tackle? How about that duck floating through the air and intercepted by a cornerback all because the quarterback was hit in the motion of throwing? I agree it’s a stretch, but like an assisted tackle, wasn’t there help needed in order to make the previous scenarios a reality? San Diego Chargers defensive end Corey Liuget led all linement with nine passes defended (an official stat for linemen) in 2012. However, his seven sacks tied him for 36th and his 51 combined tackles tied him for the 216th spot. Of the three categories, passes defended are the least important and have the fewest occurrences when evaluating line duties.
On the flip side of his quest are the people sitting across the table when it comes time to talk contract. If teams are forced to acknowledge even one of the two statistical categories, players will be able to point to their accomplishments in the stat books, thus giving them some extra leverage. It won’t be ground breaking at first, but once pressures are sourced as a basis for compensation to a specific player, that contract will become the baseline for all future negotiations. From a purely business perspective, it makes sense for ownership not to push for a form of recognition which would come back to bite them in the pockets. Still, just as Ahanotu was rewarded for his work with a franchise player contract, many teams are recognizing the efforts of current linemen. However, it’s not all about the money. “If hurries and hits had been taken into consideration when I played, I strongly believe that I would have made the Pro Bowl many times and my legacy would be more accurately defined. Honestly, I would be completely happy and at peace if my team the Buccaneers recognized my stats of quarterback hits, hurries, and pressures and awarded me as part of the Buccaneer Ring of Honor. That is my dream.”
Time will tell if both his dream and the stat-keeping gods decide Ahanotu’s quest becomes a reality. Until then, sacks will rule the day. As for his former teammate, whatever jabs were sent his way aren’t clouding his acknowledgement of Warren Sapp’s induction into the Hall of Fame. “I am very proud and excited about it. His selection validates our team, our defense, and our defensive line. His selection is a beacon of accomplishment at the pinnacle of NFL success and resonates a great deal of accomplishment and pride for all of us, especially those of us that played right next to him and orchestrated pass rush attacks with him like I did.”