Through the first 63 games of this NFL season, there has been a lot to talk, from tie games to bold risk-taking in overtime (one that worked and one that didn’t), to embarrassingly ticky-tack roughing the passer calls, to the Cleveland Browns finally winning a game.
And if you’ve been looking at scores and wondering if there are more high-scoring games, you’re right. Numbers are significantly up across several categories.
There are probably multiple reasons why.
Points, touchdowns, passing touchdowns all on record pace
3,030 total points through Week 4 tops the previous best of 2,986, which came in 2012
344 touchdowns tops the previous best of 332 in 2015
228 passing touchdowns tops the 205 posted in 2013
And these numbers include the painfully inept Arizona Cardinals, who have scored just 37 points in four games, with five touchdowns.
Viewers are seeing an average of 46.6 combined points in each game, a field goal more than the 43.4 combined points per game for the entire 2017 season.
Why is scoring up?
There isn’t just one reason, of course, but one reason looms larger than others: the rules additions and adjustments in recent years that are skewed heavily in favor of offensive players and quarterbacks in particular.
Many of these are meant to increase player safety, the league says. Rules like the prohibition of helmet-to-helmet contact with quarterbacks (now all players) and players not being able to take down quarterbacks low (a response to Tom Brady’s 2008 torn ACL) and the defenseless receiver rule are, hopefully, preventing the short- and long-term traumatic brain injuries that are part of football.
But a few years ago the league decided to reemphasize the illegal contact rule, prohibiting defenders from contacting a receiver more than 5 yards past the line of scrimmage, and while the emphasis on calling the body-weight rule for players making sacks has gotten a great deal of attention, Kevin Seifert of ESPN did the math and the number of illegal contact penalties have tripled through the first four weeks of this season compared to last year.
And it might be an illusion, but it sure seems like every other incomplete pass thrown more than 20 yards downfield draws a pass-interference flag.
Fantasy football, creative play-calling and more passing
It might be a chicken-and-egg thing, but fantasy football likely plays a role in this as well. Rules skewed toward more offensive production means more points for the millions of fantasy players on Yahoo and other sites, players who risk billions of dollars to win their leagues.
There has also been a shift in offensive coaching approach. Just about every game the announcers are mentioning “RPO,” or run-pass option. Derided just a few years ago as a college gimmick, some NFL teams have embraced it, and having more athletic quarterbacks helps that. You probably won’t see Tom Brady running much RPO – even Brady jokes about how slow he is – but Cam Newton and now Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes can thrive with those option plays.
New-guard coaches, like the Rams’ Sean McVay and 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan, are leading the way in creativity.
The shift away from run-heavy offenses plays a role too. Looking back at NFL statistics over the past several years, one number sticks out more than others: so far this year, teams are averaging 255.7 passing yards per game, a full 20 yards more than five years ago.
Teams still have running backs, of course, but now they have to be three-down backs like Alvin Kamara. Long gone are the days of fullbacks and bell-cow backs, when it was a given that teams would hand off on first down to get 4 yards.
If you’re a fan of high-scoring games, you likely have no problems with the trend. And we may even have to take another look at whether defense wins championships: last season, the top four highest-scoring teams in the AFC were the four division winners, and the four NFC division winners were among the top five highest-scoring in the conference. The teams who racked up the second- and third-most points over the course of the season, New England and Philadelphia, advanced to the Super Bowl.
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