Coordinator Monte Kiffin is just as happy when his defense stops a running back behind the line of scrimmage as he is when it records a sack
Before his long and very fruitful coaching career began, Monte Kiffin played one year of professional football, with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League.
Kiffin played defensive end for the Blue Bombers that season, 1965, and his spent the subsequent years teaching defense to hundreds and hundreds of college and pro players.
During Kiffin's playing days, there was no such thing as a 'sack.' That term was coined by Rams Hall of Fame rusher Deacon Jones, though Jones played before it was officially counted as a statistic. The NFL made the sack official in 1982 and it has since become the defensive equivalent of a touchdown.
That, at least, is the apparent importance placed on the statistic. Sacks create superstars, even in the case of a player with a game as complete as Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp's. Sapp would be one of the most dominant defenders in the NFL no matter how his statistics were compiled, but having the most sacks in the league over 1999 and 2000 combined certainly helped elevate his reputation nationwide.
Sapp currently has 65.5 career sacks, including playoffs. Kiffin's pro days were short-lived, but even if he had gone on to a long career in the NFL, his career sack total would be zero.
And that wouldn't bother him a bit.
"Sacks, sacks…I can't believe it," said Kiffin, the Bucs' defensive coordinator, this past week with a roll of his eyes. "Whoever started the deal about sacks…I wish they never had that."
And yet Tampa Bay has amassed one of the deepest group of sack-men the NFL has seen in awhile. With Sapp coming off a 16.5-sack season and DE Marcus Jones enjoying his own 13-sack breakthrough last year, the Bucs loaded up even more in the offseason by signing premier pass-rusher Simeon Rice. DT Anthony McFarland is considered another quarterback chaser in Sapp's mold and came into 2001 expecting to improve on his seven-sack sophomore season.
When the Buccaneer defense recorded a combined 98 sacks during the 1999 and 2000 season, Kiffin was probably the happiest man in Tampa. That mad rush for the quarterback helped the team rank third and ninth in defense those two seasons and hold 23 of 36 opponents to 17 points or less.
But here's the thing. As much as Kiffin appreciates what a sack can do for you, he doesn't believe that a smaller sack total is a sign of doom. Tampa Bay has just 18 sacks at the midway point, certainly well below what they expected to have at this point, but Kiffin isn't among the people wringing their hands over that statistic.
"Everybody really gets wrapped up in sacks," he said. "Sacks are nice, don't think I don't get excited about sacks. But a hurry is just as good as a sack except the guy didn't go down. Well, you hurry a guy and he throws a pick to Ronde Barber – would you rather have a sack and have it be second-and-13 or would you rather have a turnover? Figure it out."
Certainly the correlation between sacks and interceptions has been explored this season, as the Bucs have nearly matched their sack total with 15 picks. That half-season interception total has the Tampa Bay defense on pace to challenge its single-season record of 32, set in 1981. Interestingly and perhaps not coincidentally, the Buccaneer defense recorded just 23 sacks that year. Are interceptions related to near-sacks?
"Heck yeah they are," said Kiffin. "The ball's coming out quick because of the pressure. Pressure with a pick is better than a sack. One thing you can't do is have a sack and interception at the same time. It's impossible."
Furthermore, says Kiffin, an overemphasis on sacks can detract from other things the defense is doing well. Though Sapp has just three sacks this season, he has still provided a consistently good push into the backfield. At times, that has resulted in tackles of the ballcarrier behind the line of scrimmage, another play that can shut down a drive in a hurry.
"Yes, sacks are very important," he said. "Players are into it, and now the fans are into it. But let me ask you something. What is the difference if they run a toss play and you tackle the guy for a three-yard loss and it's second-and-13, or you sack a guy and it's second-and-13? Tell me the difference. It's still second-and-13, isn't it? So a tackle for lost yardage is just as important as a sack, but they don't say, 'Let's see, who's leading the league in lost yardage behind the line of scrimmage on the run?' You don't hear that."
You do hear the names of the league's sack leaders…a lot. That is not likely to change. It is also not likely that the likes of Sapp, Rice and Jones will continue to be shut out in that high-profile category. Until the big sack numbers come, though, Kiffin will be more than satisfied with quarterback pressures and tackles for loss, thank you very much.