The NFL picked up where it left off at the end of the 2011 regular season with offenses running amok.
As noted Tuesday morning by NFL stat maven Michael Signora, the league opened the 2012 campaign with a Week 1 record of 791 points scored – the second-most points ever scored (837 in Week 12 of 2008). Five teams hit the 40-point mark, also the most ever in Week 1 of a season.
All of this leads to a few questions. First, will this become status quo? Second, is there anything the league can or even wants to do to stop it? Third, can teams that used the hurry-up, no-huddle approach, such as the Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons, continue the rapid pace?
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As one weary defensive coordinator pointed out Tuesday morning: "Are you kidding me? The league loved this weekend. If they could have this every weekend, they'd be [extremely happy]. They're never going to slow this down. This is the gravy train."
With that in mind, here's a look at what happened to cause the scoring frenzy:
1. Quarterbacks turned loose
All five teams that scored at least 40 points received excellent to spectacular performances from their quarterbacks, led by Washington Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III lighting up the New Orleans Saints and the New York Jets' Mark Sanchez turning heads against the Buffalo Bills. But this was more than simply about a few guys having good days. This was about what those players were allowed to do. In particular, both Baltimore and Atlanta gave quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan, respectively, much more freedom to attack than either had done on a consistent basis in the previous four years.
Both teams played no-huddle attacks during extended periods of the game. It wasn't a two-minute drill, necessarily, but a hurry-up attack intended to give the quarterback more freedom. It's a system that requires a rare talent at a position that is already reserved for special players.
"The biggest misnomer out there is that any quarterback can do this," former Indianapolis Colts president and longtime executive Bill Polian said. "Even within the quarterbacks in this league, you have to have someone with special traits, intelligence, recognition, the ability to process things both in terms of time and actual physical ability.
"There are a lot of great quarterbacks out there who can't run the no-huddle. It requires way too much processing for them. … At any one time, you might have three or four quarterbacks who can really do it. This is way more than a two-minute drill that has a pre-packaged set of plays that you run usually against a prevent defense."
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In the case of Flacco, he took lessons from new Ravens quarterback coach Jim Caldwell, who worked with Peyton Manning for years in Indianapolis. The Falcons' change has been influenced by the hiring of new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
“Our no-huddle is not like a two minute hurry-up offense,” said Falcons head coach Mike Smith. “Like most teams that use it, we can change the tempo of it during a series or during the course of a game. There are times when a team is running the no-huddle and may use more of the play clock than when they are calling plays in the huddle. As a defense, you have to be prepared to go at all times. "I think you are seeing more teams use it to give their quarterback a chance to read the defense and make adjustments at the line of scrimmage so they can put their team in the best possible situation, more than using it as a hurry-up offense.”
Overall, it takes a commitment from the team to implement these changes because not everyone on the club likes to play hurry up. As Manning noted, half-jokingly, after Denver's win over Pittsburgh on Sunday night, it was "unfortunate" that the Broncos discovered how effective the no-huddle can be.
"There are a lot of defensive coordinators who not only hate to play against it, but they hate to play with it, especially when you go three-and-out," Polian said.
In Indianapolis, the Colts designed a defense that featured lighter, more athletic defensive players who were better conditioned to handle the short breaks if the offense lost the ball quickly. The Ravens feature a more classic 3-4 defense with big linemen such as Haloti Ngata, begging the question whether they can hold up long term if Flacco plays a lot of no-huddle.
Broncos head coach John Fox appears to have no such concerns.
"The no-huddle's something that I know Peyton has a lot of confidence in, a lot of background in" said Fox, whose Broncos only had the ball 24:55 of Sunday night's game. "I thought even late, he did a good job of even eating clock in the no-huddle. It wasn't a hurry-up no-huddle per se, but I think it kind of puts the defense on their heels a little bit. We're going to see the same thing in Atlanta this week because they utilize it a lot."
2. You need wide receivers
Of the five teams that scored 40 points, all of them made significant acquisitions at wide receiver during the past two years. In Chicago, the Bears traded for Brandon Marshall this offseason. Washington signed Pierre Garcon as a free agent. Baltimore and Atlanta drafted Torrey Smith and Julio Jones, respectively, in 2011 and the Jets drafted Stephen Hill this year. Four of those players scored touchdowns this week (Jones and Hill had two each) and Smith opened the game Monday night with a 52-yard catch.
"You have to have those threats, there's no way around it in this league," said Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who traded up for Jones last year despite already having Pro Bowler Roddy White. "If you have one, you want two. If you have two, you're looking for a dynamic tight end. If you have those guys, you want to get another one and another one. That's the way this league plays now."
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3. Defenses played their role
As defensive coaches always complain, big points lead to big ratings, particularly in the stat-infested era of fantasy football. While some defensive coordinators still cling to the notion that they can build a defense that can stop anyone – most of them have learned to deal with the fact that recent rules changes and points of emphasis aid offenses – the more realistic goal is trying to generate turnovers in hopes of getting the ball back and feeding their own offense.
The Ravens, Falcons, Bears, Redskins and Jets combined to win the turnover battle by a staggering 17-2 margin. Within that, the Ravens and Jets each returned a turnover for a score.
While Indianapolis rookie quarterback Andrew Luck accounted for four turnovers, this was not simply a situation where the inexperienced were being taken advantage of. New Orleans' Drew Brees, Kansas City's Matt Cassel and Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a combined seven interceptions.
"What [Atlanta] and [Chicago] did was a pretty big change in thinking. [Those teams] are generally pretty conservative on defense," the defensive coordinator said. "Mike [Smith] is really big on playing to situations most of the time. Both [those teams] attacked a lot more than usual. Even Washington, as much as [defensive coordinator] Jim [Haslett] will attack, to see him go after Brees that much was pretty interesting."
The coach paused for a second and then added, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."
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