This is why they have the scouting combine every year. Moments like this, when body mass meets acceleration meets opportunity for greatness. That moment when the game is close, and the small moments of time left are dripping into the continuum. When the quarterback takes seven steps back and surveys the field, leaving mouths agape and heart rates unchecked. The moment when the QB sees an open receiver and raises his arm to throw the football through the air…. and then he gets laid out like a streetwalker in Brazil. The play is over, the drive ended, the game now rendered a historical record. The sack won the game.
But how many games will sacks win in the future if what we saw this season becomes the new normal? One day we’ll look back at the 2012 season and realize that this is the year when it all changed. We’ve now entered a new era in which the long tradition of sloth-footed QBs is on the comedown, and athletic guys capable of operating outside the margins of what NFL Films force-feeds the public, are taking over. One of the first ramifications of this new reality will be the decline in the importance of sacks.
San Fran’s MLB Patrick Willis doesn’t play with reckless abandon. His style is more efficient, more concentrated and ultimately more modern. The last note, ultimately, will benefit him immensely in years to come. He’s been the best middle linebacker in the game for the last several years, and the six-time Pro Bowler is still the best player on one of this era’s best defensive squads.
But you don’t hear about him much do you?
There are two things that have kept Willis from the rightful acclaim his talents demand. One, the Niners' haven’t mattered on a national level in years, seemingly turning their backs on the smart football decisions that carried them during their glory years of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Regardless of how good a dude is, if nobody sees you play and your team doesn’t win, then your recognition is gonna suffer. Nobody’s checking for you unless you force them to, and the Niners did, making it back to the postseason last year after compiling a 26-38 record in Willis’ first four campaigns.
Second, he doesn’t have those crazy sack numbers that novices identify with dominant defensive players. He’s never had more than six sacks in a season, and this year only registered half a sack (he did have 120 tackles). At his position, it is commonplace for low sack numbers. In fact, for a middle linebacker to consistently get his hands on a QB means something is wrong. The position requires play calling, stuffing the run and covering any pass-catchers out of the backfield. If he’s constantly rushing the passer, then he’s leaving a hole in the middle of the field and his team will be susceptible to play-action fakes and draws all day.
So yeah, Patrick Willis is underrated. This season more than ever.
Niners' OLB Aldon Smith and DE Justin Smith have become household names in defensive conversations. Aldon, who recorded 14 sacks in his rookie year and then another 19 this year, became a fan favorite as somewhat of a sack specialist (he only played on passing downs in his first year). Meanwhile, Justin has picked up the mantle as the stereotypical gruff-looking, hardly-ever-smiles defensive end. He’s made the last four Pro Bowls by enacting a devastating style at different positions (he also plays DT) and lining up on 90 percent of all defensive snaps. His absence towards the end of the season, due to a triceps injury, was one of the main reasons why opposing teams racked up big numbers on the Niners and why Aldon Smith, who got his 19th sack a month before the season ended, stayed right on that number. When Aldon’s number didn’t move, people obsessed as to why. I’ll tell you why: We are in love with sacks.
Sacks are easy to understand, and, let’s face it, more exciting than a player stuffing the hole on 3rd and two. But they don’t always help you win, and their time in the spotlight may be coming to an end sooner than we all think.
When the movie The Blind Side dropped in 2009, the term and the reason for it went mainstream. Based on the life of Ravens tackle Michael Oher (played by actor Quinton Aaron – dude vanished after that role right?) the movie centered on a troubled high school kid with a lotta size and quick feet. It also highlighted a position made famous by defensive players.
Defensive ends and outside linebackers are the positions on the field mainly responsible for sacking the QB, the left tackle’s (or RT if you have a left-handed QB) job is to eliminate the blind side hit. That jarring, neck-snapping moment you always see on old films where it seems like the guy might not get back up. The QB never sees it, all they feel is the weight of a grown man barreling into their back and shoulder, accompanied by the hot sweaty breath of a guy whose job it is to inflict the pain being administered at this very moment.
Lawrence Taylor set the standard. His combination of hulking power and speed changed the game more than anyone else in the modern era. You can argue that LT is the greatest player in NFL history and feel good about yourself immediately afterwards. His #56 jersey number is second to MJ’s #23 in the sports icon department. Problem is, there’s a litany of guys who have great sack numbers (former Jets DE Mark Gastineau for instance) but were shaky against the run. Anybody who understands football will tell you that stopping the run is more important than sacks. What’s interesting now, is that we’re about to test all of these theories, starting with the Super Bowl.
The defense wins championships mantra is on weak knees right now – shaky, withering, arthritic knees with calcified bones bulging from the sides. Obviously, both San Francisco and Baltimore bring a defensive diligence to the table. Both have hard-hitting playmakers and employ imaginative schemes. But both teams got here – here being the Super Bowl – by lighting up their opponents. Baltimore has averaged 27.7 points in the playoffs, opening up their offensive tool shed by killin' teams with longball heaves and outpacing teams that, on paper, they shouldn’t be able to outscore. San Francisco has been equally impressive, averaging 476 yards a game in the postseason.
If there’s one legacy from the 2012 NFL season is that offenses are on the comeback. We’ve all seen what the Pistol offense can do to a defense. If you have a mobile quarterback, it makes it extremely tough to defend because your aggressiveness is on mute. You have to be patient, you can’t just come busting through the line chasing after a guy unless you are sure he has the ball. To counterbalance that, you need linebackers and safeties you can cover and play in all sorts of formations.
NFL GMs, amped on the mobility of RG3, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton will start drafting more and more mobile QBs. It will be come a prerequisite for draft selection potential, much in the same way that height and arm strength are now. Sure, a few special cases will slip through the cracks, but there is a standard and it will be followed. QBs with limited athleticism will no longer cut it and will be ostracized and kicked to the curb.
Defenses will have to adjust, meaning linebackers will likely get quicker and smaller since there won’t be as many gladiator matches between them and behemoth offensive lineman. They’ll also have to lose some of their bulk, improve their hand skills, be able to cover slot receivers, chip wideouts buzzing through on slant routes, chase tight ends from sideline to sidelines and still have enough energy to stop the run. Sacks however, well, those might be on the decline. Which brings us back to Willis.
He shares a jersey number and position with his counterpoint Ray Lewis, but that’s it. Preacher Ray has never been underrated (to be fair, right now he’s being overrated, but that's to be expected when a guy announces his retirement) and by the sheer power of his personality has become one of the few defensive brand names in the NFL. Willis isn’t like that. He’s a quieter guy and not quite the unshackled hitter that Lewis was in his prime. He is, however, the best LB in the game, and his style is a blueprint for scouts drafting in the future. It’s still a game of force and motion, regardless of what new scheme arises. When new exotic ideas like the Pistol do come up, you need to have players with versatility. Who cares if your sack numbers are high, but you can’t do anything else? If Lewis and Terrell Suggs struggle to control Niners QB Colin Kaepernick, we will officially be living in the future.