Khalil Mack and Von Miller may play for bitter rivals in the AFC West, but they have one thing in common: a goal. Both Mack and Miller suggested this week that they're trying to become the first player in NFL history to rack up 30 sacks in a season.
It's a monumental feat -- the league record is currently the 22.5 sacks racked up by Michael Strahan in 2001. Justin Houston came within a half-sack of the record in 2014, while J.J. Watt is the only player in league history to rack up 20-plus sacks multiple times.
The two dominant edge rushers both think it's possible, and they know a lot more about getting after quarterbacks than I do. What does the evidence tell us, though? Will we see somebody produce a 30-sack campaign in the near future? And who has the best shot of pulling it off?
The conditions would have to be perfect for anyone to even get close to 30 sacks. To establish a possibility for a 30-sack campaign, our ideal pass-rusher would need the following:
He'll have to stay healthy for a 16-game season. It's hard enough to get to 30 sacks in 16 games; it isn't going to happen in 15. If the league expands to an 18-game schedule in the future, 30 sacks becomes far more plausible. Our guy will also have to stay on the field for as many downs as possible.
He has to face a ton of pass attempts. You can't sack the quarterback when he's handing the ball off to somebody else. With the move toward a pass-first offense and faster tempos, the game is making this easier than ever. The past four seasons have been the four most pass-happy campaigns in NFL history. Successful teams are more likely to face huge passing totals by virtue of their opponents trying to catch up, so we're probably looking for someone on a playoff contender.
He has to play in an era in which sacks are relatively easy to get. Unfortunately, this isn't that era. While passing is up, the sack rate on those passes is down dramatically from years past. Only 5.8 percent of pass plays turned into sacks last season, the lowest yearly rate for which the league has official data.
He needs to be the best pass-rusher on his team by a considerable margin. As pleasant as it seems to have a second great pass-rusher taking some of the offense's attention away, it's going to be difficult to get to 30 sacks when there's another defender with a real shot at beating you to the quarterback. Of the 11 seasons in which a player racked up 20 or more sacks since it became an official statistic, just two came with another defender on the same team producing 10 or more sacks. It's gotta be a one-man show.
He needs a ton of hits. The fundamental building block of sacks are quarterback knockdowns, which are recorded separately by the league. Players with a disproportionately high ratio of sacks to hits fall back to earth the following season, while those pass-rushers who rack up a ton of hits without sacks improve the following campaign.
He needs to get lucky. The typical star pass-rusher -- a defender with 20 or more hits in a given season -- will turn 45 percent of his hits into sacks. The guys with 30 hits or more since 2006 (the point at which the NFL started reliably recording hit data) turned 40 percent of their hits into sacks, suggesting that the sack rate will continue to fall as players rack up more hits.
One defender looms as the most plausible option by a significant margin: Watt, who is the only edge rusher over the past decade to post the sort of numbers needed to sniff this record.
With 11 years of data, Watt has four seasons with 40 hits or more and two seasons with 50 or more knockdowns. No one else has even one 40-hit season to their name. He also managed to turn nearly 50 percent of his hits into sacks during the 2012 season, when his 43 hits produced 20.5 sacks (47.7 percent). As good as Mack and Miller have been, if Watt returns to the form we saw before last year's back surgery that caused him to miss 13 games, he's our guy.
The perfect case
Watt is the right player, but he's not in the right world to pull off a 30-sack season. The Texans won the AFC South, but they weren't dominant enough or playing at a fast enough pace to see a lot of passes last season; the 553 pass plays their defense faced in 2016 were the second fewest in the league. Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney are effective pass-rushers who will push Watt for sacks, and as Watt recovers from back surgery, the Texans might not want to push him to play virtually every defensive snap.
So, let's create the ideal situation and estimate Watt's chances. The Falcons faced a league-high 689 pass plays last season, so let's work with that number. He can't suit up for every snap, but during the 2014 season, Watt was on the field for 93.3 percent of Houston's defensive plays. So let's say he gets 643 chances to sack the quarterback.
Watt's best sack rate as a pro is actually from his breakout 2012 season, when he took down opposing passers 3.6 percent of the time. At that rate, his typical season would produce 23.1 sacks, which would be the NFL record. Using the binomial distribution, we can find that the chances of Watt racking up 30 or more sacks in a single season under ideal conditions are 9.3 percent. Not impossible.
Of course, that's a season in which everything goes right. We're assuming that teams would even be willing to throw that much against a player as disruptive as Watt, or that his performance wouldn't slip given a remarkably high usage rate. Given Watt's production rates and Houston's actual pass attempt totals, the best chance he has had at a 30-sack campaign was in 2012, and that topped out at 2.7 percent.
Mack hasn't come close to sniffing 30 sacks -- he racked up 15 sacks on 602 pass plays for a 2.5 percent sack rate in 2015, his best campaign. That generates a 30-sack probability of 0.04 percent. Miller's 18.5-sack season in 2013 was good for a sack rate of 3.3 percent, in line with Watt's second-best campaign. Facing 563 pass plays, the Broncos star had just a 0.8 percent shot at racking up 30 takedowns.
It's going to be really tough to jump from 22.5 sacks to 30, even under the best conditions. It would also be virtually unprecedented in terms of how far it would move the goalposts. Records usually trickle slowly upward, with the new mark beating the old record by a few yards here or a touchdown there. They don't leap forward very often.
Thirty sacks wouldn't just set a new record; it would obliterate the old one by 33 percent. As good as Watt is, it might take somebody we've never seen before to come out of nowhere and totally change our perceptions of what a player is capable of doing at his position. Players did this in the 1940s and '50s as the game was evolving rapidly, but in the modern era, even once-in-a-generation stars like Jim Brown haven't been able to move the needle as quickly as a pass-rusher would need to in order to go from 22.5 sacks to 30.
There is one exception, though. One post-merger player dramatically improved on the previously established record set for a prominent counting statistic. Entering the 1984 season, Y.A. Tittle held the NFL record for most passing touchdowns in a single season with 36, a figure he'd posted during the 1963 campaign. (George Blanda had also thrown for 36 touchdowns two years earlier in the AFL.)
In his first full season as a starting quarterback, though, Dan Marino blew that record to smithereens. The Hall of Famer racked up 48 passing touchdowns during a stunning season in 1984, eclipsing the previous record by ... 33.3 percent. It's incredibly unlikely that another player will do that and rewrite the record books for sacks, but it's not impossible, either.