Certainly, sacks can be devastating. Consider:
The quarterback for Team A, under duress, throws the ball away. It's second and 10. Two five-yard gains still gives his team a first down.
The quarterback for Team B, under duress, takes a seven-yard sack. It's second and 17. Two eight-yard gains still leave his team having to punt the ball away on fourth down.
The quarterback for Team C, under duress, takes a seven-yard sack AND loses the football. The defense recovers, taking possession and perhaps returning the loose ball for a touchdown.
The quarterback for Team D, under duress, takes a seven-yard sack AND sustains a season-ending knee/ankle/shoulder injury (pick one).
Basically, it's a whole lot better to be Team A and lose a down than to be Team B and lose seven yards ... or Team C and lose the ball ... or Team D and lose your quarterback.
The Vols have made avoiding sacks an overwhelming priority this season. That's why Tennessee leads the NCAA in sacks allowed with three. And that's why offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe rolls his eyes whenever someone asks, "Couldn't Erik Ainge make more plays if he held onto the ball a little longer?"
"He's getting the ball out of there on time, which I like," Cutcliffe said. "I'm not going to EVER complain about that. We can pick any play on occasion and say, ‘Well, if we'd just moved a little bit here in the pocket…' That's just part of coaching and correcting."
After poring over tons of statistics, Cutcliffe knows that teams rarely pick up first downs after suffering sacks. He knows that most quarterback fumbles occur during sacks. He knows that most quarterback injuries are the result of sacks. He knows that most interceptions are caused by throwing the ball up for grabs to avoid sacks. That's why the Vol coordinator would rather Ainge unload the ball a little too early than hold it too long and risk being sacked.
"All you have to do is think about your viewing of television – whether it's pro football or college football – and how many bad things happen when the quarterback gets hit in the pocket," Cutcliffe said. "We avoid that the best we can. We think that's one of the things you have to avoid to be a winning football team. We try to do as good a job of it as anybody, and I think our kids do that."
The coordinator said avoiding sacks will always be a "huge" priority in his offensive scheme. The obvious question: Won't some quarterbacks feel restricted?
"Probably, but they're going to do it my way," Cutcliffe said, smiling. "If you think back about Erik's past, when he held onto it too long a lot of really bad things happened to him. We're not going to go there."
Indeed. The worst play of Ainge's career occurred in 2005 at Baton Rouge. After dropping back into his own end zone, he was pressured by an LSU pass rusher. Rather than throw the ball away immediately, he held onto it an extra half-second, then tried to heave it – grenade style – as he was being tackled. The ball floated into the arms of LSU linebacker Kenneth Hollis, who needed just two steps to score a Tiger touchdown.
Obviously, there is much more to avoiding sacks than just a willingness to unload the ball ahead of the pass rush.
"It's decision-making, pre-snap reads, being definitive in what your thought process is," Cuitcliffe said. "If you're really good at what you're doing, you're not sitting there holding the ball and trying to figure out what you're going to do with it. We're going to get the ball out because we know what to do (based on) recognition and film study.
"You should know what the coverage is and anticipate where you're going with the ball. Boom! Boom! And the ball is out. That's what we've always done. I'm a little impatient person anyway, and that kind of carries over into our pass offense."
Cutcliffe's impatience has carried over into Ainge, specifically. The senior quarterback knows what his coordinator wants and knows how to deliver it.
"He's smart, he's learned the game," Cutcliffe said of Ainge. "None of us are perfect. You've got a bunch of big people coming at you, and you've got two seconds to make all these decisions. But he's really learned what his options are before the ball is snapped. He's getting the ball out of his hand and to the right place most of the time."
Cutcliffe's aversion to sacks also can be seen in ex-Vol Peyton Manning, now coming off a Super Bowl season with the NFL's Indianapolis Colts.
"When Peyton and I talk football, that's what we talk about – coverage and blitz, at-the-line thought process and thought process after the ball is snapped," Cutcliffe said. "He's pretty masterful at that himself. He probably throws the ball on better rhythm and better tempo than anybody in the National Football League, and I think Erik right now is doing that better than anybody in college football."