The scene has recurred this season: A prime-time NFL matchup looms, perhaps one that was circled months ago as a premier face-off of high-octane offenses.
Then 2022 NFL reality hits, lonely end zones and rigid scoreboards materializing.
And alas, viewers are “treated” to the Indianapolis Colts’ 12-9 overtime win over the Denver Broncos, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 19-3 Sunday Night Football takedown of the Dallas Cowboys, the San Francisco 49ers’ 24-9 dismantling of the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams, and the Washington Commanders’ 12-7 escape from the Chicago Bears.
“I think there’s a lot of bad football from what I watch,” Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady said bluntly Oct. 6. “I watch a lot of bad football. Poor quality of football. That’s what I see.”
Scoring across the 2022 season is down. And through seven weeks of play, the 43.4 average total points per game marks the lowest output the NFL has seen since 2010. But why?
“We’ve looked at it in a lot of different ways,” NFL competition committee chairman Rich McKay, also the Atlanta Falcons president/CEO, said at the league’s fall meeting this month. “Every statistical look that we’ve made, I’m not sure that we’ve found a good answer.”
Yahoo Sports has sought to identify the myriad contributing factors. Speaking with NFL head coaches, players and team decision-making staff members, a series of theories emerged. Further data from the league’s analytics department helped sort through questions. We asked: Are 2022 NFL offenses worse? Are this year’s defenses better? And how much of that stems from player skills, coaching influence and/or expected league trends?
Here’s what we found.
Teams are in ‘discovery phase’
To start, let’s contextualize those 43.4 average points scored across 108 NFL games in 2022. That figure represents the combined score between two opponents in a contest, and it’s down 3.8 points from last year’s 47.2 mark through seven weeks of play, according to research compiled for Yahoo Sports by NFL senior director of football and analytics Mike Lopez. No time since the league’s 2011 lockout has scoring dipped lower. Only once since 2011 have games featured fewer average touchdowns than this year’s 4.79 through seven weeks, Lopez found.
Initially, multiple coaches, players and team research staff members attributed the deficit to roster growing pains. Decreased preseason participation was influencing offensive rhythm. Offensive linemen, in particular, needed more time to settle. Add in a series of high-profile personnel moves in the offseason — the Seattle Seahawks traded quarterback Russell Wilson to the Broncos, the Green Bay Packers dealt receiver Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders and the Baltimore Ravens sent receiver Marquise "Hollywood" Brown to the Arizona Cardinals, to name a few — and some teams simply needed to get on the same page, as the sentiment went. Injuries only exacerbated upheaval.
“It just seems like there are a lot of people in transition with their team,” Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley said. “That’s why I talk about the ‘discovery’ phase. I don’t use that as a coaching phrase to make it feel better, I think it’s descriptive of what’s actually happening.
“Once these groups join up and they get their quote unquote ‘identity,’ then you’ll see it.”
But scoring isn’t just down relative to the last decade’s season-long totals. This year has established a new floor compared to seven-week stretches since 2010, which suggests something more at play than just early growing pains. Defensive trends, to passing attacks’ dismay, appear to be factoring in.
Good luck passing as defenses drop deeper
While rushing attacks have largely chugged on, passing efficiency has plunged. Lopez broke down net points by added play type, discovering that through Week 7 of last season, passing plays were worth about plus-325 net points. In comparison, this year, they have netted about minus-50. The 375-point swing, divided by 108 games, represents a loss of 3.47 points per game (close to the 3.8-point overall scoring dip). Passing completion percentage across the league is at a five-year low (62.6%) as is completion of deep throws (25+ yards), generating only a 27.7% success rate.
An increase in zone coverage and deep safety usage has emerged.
“We’re seeing a lot more scheme just on first and second downs from defenses than you did 10 years ago, probably 6-7 years ago,” said Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy, who spent 2000-2005 as an offensive coordinator and has since been an NFL head coach every year but 2019. “You always talk about situational football, but I think first and second down is being treated more aggressively schematically on defense throughout the league. I think that’s definitely something that’s part of it.”
Compared to 2018 defensive alignments, teams are employing Cover 2 zone (two deep safeties) 2.9% more; Cover 4 zone (two deep safeties plus two corners dropping deep, also known as "quarters") 3.3% more; and Cover 6 zone (half field Cover 2, other half quarters) 3.7% more. Finding success downfield amid the more crowded and more clouded field is a challenge — and though safety usage isn’t the sole factor, it indicates “defenses across the league are leaning toward schemes and personnel who can disrupt passing games,” one team employee involved in data and decision-making told Yahoo Sports on condition of anonymity. Defenders are becoming more versatile, and defenses are stacking the box less as they prepare to fend off passing attacks.
Defensive players and coordinators who have stayed put as their offensive counterparts relocated across the league are finding an edge.
“We know where we’re going. We’re going to the ball,” Chargers safety Derwin James told Yahoo Sports. “Offense is more time and rhythm [so] they’re still figuring out what they want to do.”
Members of three different teams’ staffs also told Yahoo Sports they believe defensive coaches are catching up to the offensive innovation promulgated by coaches like the Rams’ Sean McVay and 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan. One of the staff members pointed specifically to the dip in what they deemed “creative” plays, counting 71 worth clipping through three weeks last season compared to 45 this year.
“The tape has shrunk considerably lately because the league is so homogenous, you don’t see many new ideas anymore,” the person said, on condition of anonymity. “Philly special, wildcat, jet sweep, throwback boot, throwback screen, throwback double pass — it’s all been done so often that defenses know how to play against that now.
“It’s a copycat league with everyone’s video easily accessible and filtered infinitely with all these data companies. Where will new concepts come from?”
Why the NFL still thinks it’s entertaining
If this all sounds like it’s moving toward less entertaining football, as Brady argued, league and team staff members have answers for that, too. To start, they underscore the league’s historic parity.
Even after higher-scoring games in Week 7, the 9.33-point average margin of victory this season is the lowest the league has seen across data compiled beginning in 1983. Last season, teams won by an average of 12.11 points. So while your team may not score as much, games will often come down to the final minutes. With team records unusually bundled together as well, a higher percentage of games on a given Sunday slate could impact season-long outcomes.
Then come the defensive performances limiting that scoring, like Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons’ speedy chase prompting a goal-line stop of the Detroit Lions last Sunday. What seemed an inevitable touchdown early in the fourth quarter instead resulted in a scoreless final period, and 14-point loss, for Detroit.
“Amen,” Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said of scoring being down. “But usually the best teams on both sides of the ball are really hitting their stride this next half [of the year].
“The ebbs and flows of a season.”
While many established defensive coordinators are capitalizing against newer offensive coordinators-turned-head coaches, there are pockets of creativity fueling some teams’ surprising early success. Evaluators around the league are impressed with how offensive coordinator Mike Kafka has revitalized the New York Giants' offense, powering condensed formations to disguise running back Saquon Barkley’s usage in ways that also are liberating quarterback Daniel Jones. Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen has unlocked quarterback Jalen Hurts’ game by scheming skill players into versatile roles. The Minnesota Vikings, Miami Dolphins and even the Atlanta Falcons have maximized the talent at their disposal in moments that impress counterparts.
Beyond them? The league will have its eyes peeled for the next source of offensive evolution that comes to neutralize the edge 2022 defenses have mounted.
“That’s what’s so fun about this game, that every single week involves a new approach where you're trying to make sure you put your guys in the right spots,” McVay said. “Then you’re able to sequence the game in a manner that’s reflective of ultimately coming away with the win.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein