A Sack in Football - Definition and Explanation

football sack
Grant Halverson/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

A sack occurs when the quarterback is tackled behind the line of scrimmage before he can throw a forward pass.


In order for a play to be considered a sack, it must be obvious that the quarterback either intends to throw a forward pass or is still in the pocket without a clear, discernable objective for the play. If the play was a designed rush for the quarterback, a tackle of the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage does not count as a sack, but rather as negative rushing yards by the quarterback. If a defensive player makes physical contact with a quarterback who is then ruled down by contact that is also counted as a sack. The quarterback must pass the statistical line of scrimmage to avoid a sack. A sack is also credited when a defender causes the quarterback to fumble the ball and the defending team recovers the ball behind the original line of scrimmage. This is referred to as a ‘strip sack.’

If a sack occurs while the quarterback is still in his own end zone, the play results in a safety and the defending team is awarded two points and the ball. When more than one player is involved in a sack, each player involved is credited with half of a sack.

Quarterbacks often opt to throw the ball away to avoid getting sacked. This way, the result of the play would just be a loss of down, rather than a loss of yards and a loss of down. However, when the ball is thrown up-field in order to avoid a sack, there must be a reasonable chance of completion. Otherwise, the quarterback will be called for intentional grounding. Intentional grounding is a violation of the rules in which a pass throws a forward pass without a realistic chance of completion. This most often occurs when a quarterback is trying to avoid a sack.


The term ‘sack’ was initially popularized by NFL Hall-of-Fame linebacker Deacon Jones, who is also credited with revolutionizing the sack, in the 1960’s. Jones likened the devastation of a sack on an offense to a city’s devastation after a sacking.

“Sacking a quarterback is just like you devastate a city or you cream a multitude of people,” Jones famously stated. “It’s just like you put all the offensive players in one bag and I just take a baseball bat and beat on the bag.”

Prior to the popularization of the term ‘sack’, the word ‘dump’ was often used to describe a quarterback being taken down behind the line. The NFL’s official statistic office recorded all sacks as ‘dumps.’ The league only started to keep track of the times passers lost yardage in 1961, and no credit was given to the defensive player(s) responsible until 1982. Thus, the records of sacks prior to 1982 are inaccurate.

NFL All-Time Sack Leaders

1. Bruce Smith: 200

2. Reggie White: 198

3. Kevin Greene: 160

4. Chris Doleman: 150.5

5. Michael Strahan: 141.5

6. Jason Taylor: 139.5

7. John Randle: 137.5

8. Richard Dent: 137.5

9. Jared Allen: 134

10. John Abraham: 133.5