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NCAA, stop counting sacks against rushing yards

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The most obvious flaw in college football stats has lasted too long.

Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

College football counts sacks against offensive rushing yards, despite sacks coming on passing plays.

This routinely makes for misleading QB stat lines that deflate rushing achievements and inflate passing totals. In 2017, Lamar Jackson carried 203 times for 1,761 yards — an incredible 8.7-yard average. But Jackson got sacked 29 times for 160 yards, and so in the official books, he ran 232 times for 1,601 yards — a less stunning 6.9-yard average.

On Jackson’s passing attempts, with sacks included, he averaged 7.6 yards. But the NCAA doesn’t count sacks that way, so Jackson’s official yards per pass attempt (i.e., his yards per actual throw) was 8.5. Just as he was a better runner than the official stats showed, he was a less effective passer.

The NFL’s stat-keeping system is a little weird, but it makes sense, because it prevents this from happening. The pros count sacks against a team’s passing stats, but not against individual QBs’ numbers. (After all, sacks aren’t always the QB’s fault.) NFL statisticians also don’t count them against QBs’ individual rushing stats. They instead use a separate category, sack yards.

For a few reasons, the time’s right for college to do something like what the NFL does: count sacks against passing yards, and do so at the team level.

1. On the most basic level, sacks happen because of a team’s passing game.

Definitionally, sacks happen when QBs are trying to throw. In both college and the NFL, they’re assessed when a QB has clearly intended to throw a pass and gotten tackled behind the line before doing it.

The official scorers at college games don’t count all negative plays that end with the QB getting tackled as sacks. They use an eyeball test to figure out if something was meant to be a run or pass. This play ...

... went into the scorebook like this:

Delton, Alex rush for loss of 1 yard to the KS35

Even plays that end with a QB running out out of bounds behind the line after dropping back to pass, scorers can call a non-sack run play.

Sacks are pretty confined to specific moments when a QB’s trying to pass but can’t. The spread of run/pass options has blurred the line between what’s a run and what’s a pass, but the people who categorize plays are already used to figuring out what’s what.

2. Counting sacks as rushing yards makes actual rushing yards wrong.

In 2017, the 130 FBS teams combined to get sacked 3,389 times. Those sacks cost their offenses a combined 21,833 yards, or 6.44 yards per sack. All of those 21,833 yards counted as negative rushes.

The way the NCAA calculates stats, the same 130 teams combined to run 64,128 times for 286,922 yards, an average of 4.47 yards.

They didn’t really, though, because 5.3% of the country’s “runs” were actually sacks — plays on which the offense was not intending to run.

If the NCAA counted sack yards against team passing totals, the average FBS carry — the most obvious definition of a run play — in 2017 would’ve been 5.08 yards, half a yard more than the counted average.

3. Counting sacks as rushing yards badly distorts passing stats.

Again, let’s use 2017. The NCAA credits FBS teams with 51,312 pass attempts for 378,359 yards. That’s a 7.37-yard average. But it only counts pass attempts that included the ball leaving the QB’s hand.

If sacks counted against passing stats instead of rushing stats, there’d have been 3,389 more passing attempts and 21,833 fewer passing yards. The NCAA only counts 93.8% of its actual passing attempts as passing attempts, because it excludes sacks.

If sacks counted against team passing yardage, the average 2017 FBS throw would’ve gotten 6.52 yards — 0.86 yards less than it gets in the official record.

That’s almost the exact difference as between the NFL’s #1 passer in 2017 by yards per actual throw (Drew Brees at 8.09) and the guy who finished 15th (Russell Wilson at 7.2).

4. This warped system makes the two levels of the sport seem more different than they are.

Some NFL fans and evaluators have long dismissed massive stats by college QBs who played in spread passing systems or in conferences not known for defense. The way college football keeps stats contributes to this disconnect.

If college treated sacks the way the NFL does — the correct way anyway — the gaps between running and passing offense at the two levels would appear far smaller:

How college football’s treatment of sacks messed with numbers in 2017

Stat NFL CFB under current system CFB if it made this change
Stat NFL CFB under current system CFB if it made this change
Team yards per rush 4.1 4.5 5.1
Team yards per pass 6.1 7.4 6.5

The total yards per snap at both levels in 2017: 5.3 in the NFL, 5.8 in college.

Sacks happen on passing plays. The NCAA’s insistence that they be treated as running plays makes it seem like college passing is easier than it is and college running is harder than it is. But really, the biggest difference is that running is a lot easier in college.

At a time when the two levels of play are more similar than ever, we’d all be more intelligent fans if they counted sacks the same way. Because the NFL is getting this issue correct, it should be college that changes.

Many would miss some of the wondrous stat lines that come about because of the NCAA’s insistence that sacks are a rushing stat.

Personally, I’d be devastated to lose Mike Leach victories in which his teams get credit for exactly zero rushing yards.

I’d be crestfallen that no one would ever break the current record for fewest rushing yards allowed in a game, set by Toledo against NIU in 1967: negative-109 yards on 33 “rushes.”

But I’d get over it, because all in all, counting sacks as rushing yards is dumb. College football has more pressing issues, but that’s no reason not to fix this easy one.