Three Mississippi: How Long Can NFL QBs Hang On To The Ball?

Three seconds.

That's about the median sack time in the NFL last year, according to research by JJ Cooper of FanHouse, who broke down all the sacks in the NFL by time, and conveniently split them by sacks that happened within three seconds of the snap ('fast sacks'), and by sacks that happened three seconds or more after the snap ('slow sacks').

While a lot of factors play into how sacks happen, and time is only one of them, the three second mark is an interesting one to look at because you could make an argument that a sack time under three seconds falls more on the protection, while a sack time over three seconds falls more on the QB for not getting rid of the ball on time.

The usual suspects populate the list of QBs who hold onto the ball too long: Joe Flacco (25 slow sacks), Ben Roethlisberger (20), Jay Cutler (19) and Michael Vick (19). The Cowboys had three QBs starting games last season, so comparing individual QBs doesn't make all that much sense from a Cowboys perspective, so we'll look at team values after the break.

According to JJ Cooper's research, Tony Romo had three slow sacks and four fast ones, Jon Kitna had five slow sacks and 15 fast sacks and Stephen McGee added two slow sacks. In total the Cowboys allowed 21 fast sacks and eight slow sacks.

The eight slow sacks with a long sack time rank the Cowboys a joint eighth in the league. We know that Romo and McGee are pretty  good scramblers, and while Kitna is not the most nimble QB in the league, he did escape a couple of tight situations with his feet. So fairly mobile QBs are a part of why that number is so low, the other part is that especially with Kitna under center, the Cowboys passing game was designed to get the ball out very quickly, in large part because of the leaky pass protection. Of note, both Manning brothers had only one slow sack each. That is quite remarkable.

The 21 fast sacks rank the Cowboys a middling 15th in the league. While it's never good to give up this many fast sacks, other teams have given up considerably more and still had success: The Packers had 26 fast sacks and had some success last year, as did the Bears with 35 and the Eagles and Saints with 22 fast sacks each. However, none of these teams had a gameplan specifically designed to counter the fast sack with a short, quick passing game.

When your offensive game plan is set up in such way that you'll give up a few fast sacks, you'll accept that as part of your risk/reward assessment.

When your offensive game plan is designed to specifically avoid fast sacks, in the Cowboys' case with a short, quick passing game, and you still give up those fast sacks, then you have a pass protection issue.

Cowboys fans can take a little comfort in that fact that it could still have been a lot worse. The Panthers gave up 43 fast sacks, the Cardinals 37. Having a quarterback who relies on his legs to get him out of trouble may be a good thing at times, but it comes with the price tag of a higher rate of slow sacks. The Eagles (26), Steelers (26), Ravens (25) and Bears (21) lead the league in slow sacks allowed.

In the end, the numbers paint a clear picture. The Cowboys QBs didn't hang on to the ball too long - but got sacked anyway.

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