If there were one play to explain the 2020 NFL season – one seven-second snippet to summarize four record-setting months – it happened in Vegas.
And its protagonists weren’t superstars or even Pro Bowlers. They were referees.
It was the night after Christmas, Week 16. Nineteen seconds remained in an empty stadium. The Dolphins trailed the Raiders by two. And as Ryan Fitzpatrick climbed the pocket, it began to cave. As it did, a Dolphin held a Raider’s shoulder pad. A Raider grabbed Fitzpatrick’s facemask. Playoff hopes wavered in his hand.
— NFL (@NFL) December 27, 2020
In a way, the score alone was emblematic. Mediocre quarterbacks produced 51 points that night – roughly par for the most prolific season in league history. NFL offenses set records in 2020 for scoring; yards; first downs; completions; and so much more. Their 49.6 points per game topped last season’s average by four full points, and shattered the previous high by 2.8.
Yet the Dolphins play was particularly emblematic for another reason. The hold and the facemask? Only one was flagged. The former enabled Fitzmagic … and officials ignored it. The latter tacked on 15 yards … and enabled victory.
That imbalance was the untold football story of 2020. Over the previous 11 seasons, NFL refs enforced 3,272 more offensive penalties than defensive ones — an average of 297 per season. This year, they enforced 52 more defensive penalties than offensive ones. They granted 3,380 net penalty yards to offenses – 13.2 per game, up from 0.8 per game in 2019, and by far the most in the nflpenalties.com database.
And while that isn’t the sole reason for the offensive boom, “it's definitely one of the reasons,” says former NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino.
In fact, it might be the biggest.
The penalty imbalance
Football is a constantly evolving species, and some of its mutations are natural. Scoring has risen steadily throughout the 21st century. Innovative coaches and dynamic QBs are partially responsible. And indeed, the current crop of young gunslingers, from Patrick Mahomes to Justin Herbert, is one reason for 2020’s scoring surge.
But other mutations are artificial. The NFL can modify football’s DNA. And that’s exactly what it did this season. Walt Anderson, the NFL’s senior VP of officiating training and development, revealed the new directive in September. The league essentially told refs to punish “clear and obvious” penalties, but disregard the rest. And for 17 weeks, refs obeyed. They threw 13.1 flags per game, down from 16.02 last season. They called 2.14 offensive holds per game, a sharp decline from 3.42 and 3.45 the two seasons prior.
“And offensive linemen didn't stop holding. They didn't start holding at a lesser rate,” Blandino says. “The standard changed. And it changed without a lot of discussion or communication as to what it really was going to be.”
But to experts like Blandino, it was noticeable. To defensive disruptors, it was vexing. “All the damn time, I talk to [refs],” Aaron Donald said in November. "I say, 'You got to see that holding call.' They say they don't see it. I'm like, 'Man, the guy got me around my neck, grabbed, pulled my shirt.’ ”
Elsewhere, illegal blocks above the waist and offensive pass interference calls also declined. Overall, in four of the previous five seasons, accepted offensive penalties had topped 6.1 per game; in 2020, that average plummeted to 4.75.
Meanwhile, defensive penalty rates held relatively steady. Defensive pass interference accounted for more yards than any other foul, offensive or defensive, for the first time in league history. The offense-defense penalty yardage margin – which was +0.4 per game over the previous 11 years – soared to +13.2.
The new equilibrium affected games in countless ways. Fewer flags meant less yardage lost, of course, but also more yardage gained on runs and passes aided by holds that went uncalled. When refs get lenient, Blandino explains, teams notice and coach players to take advantage. Players – especially offensive tackles, but even receivers – have done just that.
So not only did penalty rates plunge; the league-wide sack rate also dipped, and neared an all-time low. Rushing yards per attempt reached an all-time high. The NFL’s DNA manipulation impacted the sport in very logical and intentional ways.
How penalties impacted the offensive boom
The offensive surge wasn’t about singular stars. It wasn’t driven by one exceptional team. Around three-quarters of the league upped their points tally year-over-year. A similar fraction gained more yards as well.
And it wasn’t about pace or explosive plays either. In fact, NFL teams averaged fewer drives per game in 2020 than in any other season dating back to 1998, the first for which Pro Football Reference has possession-based data.
The offensive surge, rather, was about sustaining those drives. In 2020, the average possession lasted more plays and traveled more yards than ever before. Points per drive jumped to 2.20, up from 1.94 last season, and from a previous high of 2.00 in 2018.
Record-low turnover rates help explain the trend. Fourth-down aggressiveness might too. But so does refereeing. New standards led to fewer backwards, drive-busting plays. Refs directly cut down on the second-biggest drive-killer, penalties, by not calling them; and indirectly cut down on the biggest, sacks, by allowing holds that prevented them. Quarterbacks were sacked on just 5.9% of dropbacks, down from 6.7% and 6.8% the two seasons prior.
The uncalled holds, and previously illegal blocks, boosted efficiency across the board, on all downs, in every NFL city. Only five offenses were penalized more in 2020 than in 2019, per nflpenalties.com. The other 27 got off easy.
And while some experts expected flag frequency to normalize as the year wore on, it didn’t. Only 8.75 penalties were accepted per game in Week 17, the fewest this season – and fewest of any week in the entire nflpenalties.com database, which begins in 2009. The continued leniency suggests that it’s still exploitable – that linemen should hold more to open holes for running backs, and buy time for quarterbacks, as the playoffs begin this weekend.
The concept of NFL game manipulation isn’t novel. Rule changes have crafted football into what it is today. And few would argue against the emphasis on “clear and obvious.” In many ways, it benefits the sport.
But that, Blandino says, “has always been the philosophy.”
“This,” he says of 2020, and of officials’ stunning tolerance, “has been different.”
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