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The NFL Has Never Seen an Offensive Boom Like This

Scoring and yardage is up, turnovers and punts are down—football has changed in 2020 like no other season in recent memory. Is this good for the game, and how will the league respond?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The extraordinary circumstances surrounding the start of the 2020 NFL season―including COVID-related restrictions on training camp and practice time, preseason cancellations, and the wave of player opt-outs―left me feeling skeptical about the quality of the football we’d see across the league this season. I remember discussions back in July and August about the oncoming deluge of sloppy football, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Many expected that quarterbacks and receivers wouldn’t have enough time to fine-tune their timing and chemistry, and offensive linemen wouldn’t get enough reps they’d need to jell as a unit. The safest assumption at that point seemed to be that we’d get a bunch of ugly, low-scoring games this season. Or so I thought.

But with nine weeks in the books, the opposite has proven to be true. Thanks to a perfect storm of driving forces―from the league’s offense-benefiting mandate on calling only the most “clear and obvious” penalties to a new lack of home-field advantage (because of the absence or low number of fans in the stands) that makes it easier for road teams to communicate in opposing stadiums―the NFL finds itself in the middle of the most marvelous scoring boom in its history.

The overall offensive numbers that teams are putting up this year are staggering. Let’s start with the bottom line: total points. Through nine weeks, NFL teams are on track to score a projected 12,967 total points, which would be a record by a massive margin―nearly 1,000 more points than the next closest season. For some context, the difference between 2020’s points pace and the second-highest scoring season on record (2013) would be 980 points, or approximately the difference between 2013 and 2004, currently the 14th-highest scoring season ever.

Narrowed down to more easily digestible terms (and better accounting for the league’s gradual expansion in the number of franchises and games per year), teams are averaging 25.3 points per game so far this season, nearly two full points higher than the league’s second-most prolific scoring season to date (2013, when teams averaged 23.4 points per game). The 1.9 point margin between the first and second spots might not sound like a lot, but it’s an absolutely massive chasm, roughly equal to the gap between the NFL’s second- and 31st-ranked scoring seasons. Without getting into standard deviations or orders of magnitude or anything math or scientific sounding, I think it’d suffice to say we’re seeing fucking shitload of scoring relative to every other season in the NFL’s history.

Check out 2020’s scoring spike on the graph below, which plots average team points per game for every season going back to 1950. The red line represents that average over that period, showing that the league has gradually increased scoring for years now—but there’s still nothing like the jump from 2019 to this season:

As you’d expect, a big part of the league’s scoring explosion has been the result of incredible quarterback play. NFL teams are averaging more passing touchdowns per game (1.77) than any other season in history, and passing numbers, both in volume and efficiency, are up nearly all across the board. Quarterbacks are averaging 35.3 attempts per game, fourth most ever; they’re throwing for an average of 245.3 yards per game, averaging 7.4 yards per attempt, and tallying a 95.1 passer rating, all on pace to rank no. 1 for quarterbacks in any season since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. And despite all that passing, the league’s quarterbacks are on pace to throw just 404 total interceptions, which would be the lowest mark this century. Turnovers are down year over year (from 2.8 per game last year to 2.6 per game this season). It’s gotten to the point that I’m starting to feel bad for the NFL’s defenses.

The league’s defenders aren’t the only ones who’ve suffered during this historic scoring boom. As Ringer colleague Nora Princiotti wrote this week, punters are suffering from unprecedented bouts of boredom this year. Per Princiotti, the league has seen an 18 percent decrease in total punts through the first nine weeks, leaving the NFL on track to record its fewest punts in any season since it went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. Punters have been a relative afterthought thanks to the NFL’s record-setting pace for offensive third-down conversions (offenses gained first downs on 42.8 percent of third downs in the first eight weeks, per CBS’s Jonathan Jones, a rate that, should it carry, would represent a new NFL record) and a far more aggressive mindset on fourth downs (teams are going for it on fourth down at record paces this year).

A few teams are keeping their field goal kickers out in the cold, too. The 6-2 Seahawks are the perfect microcosm for a season defined by fun, hyperefficient offenses, lamentable defensive performances, and a rarely used kicking game: Led by MVP candidate Russell Wilson, Seattle is on pace to lead the NFL in scoring (34.3 points per game) while simultaneously reaching new lows for defensive ineptitude (Seattle is 28thth in points allowed, and has given up 2,897 passing yards through its first eight games, more than any other team has given up through nine games). But thanks to their offensive efficiency and red zone prowess, the Seahawks have mostly forgotten that kicker Jason Myers is even on the team: The veteran attempted just two field goals in the team’s first five games. His pace has picked up a tad in the past three weeks―he’s now at seven field goal attempts in eight games (he’s hit them all)―but I’ll admit that I had to google “Seahawks kicker” because I couldn’t remember who it was. I live in Seattle.

Getting back to Wilson for a second, though, what the 31-year-old signal-caller has done thus far stacks up well to a few other historic passing performances. With 28 touchdowns on the year, Wilson sits at fourth on the list for most passing TDs through the first nine weeks of a season, trailing Tom Brady (who had 33 touchdowns through nine weeks in 2007!!), Patrick Mahomes (29, in 2018), and Peyton Manning (29, in 2013). But with eight games to go, Wilson’s still on pace (56 touchdowns) to beat Manning’s all-time record for single-season passing touchdowns (55, in 2013). Aaron Rodgers, who has 24 touchdowns in eight games (a 48-touchdown pace) isn’t far behind, nor is Patrick Mahomes (25 touchdowns in nine games, a 44-score pace).

And while Wilson is on a historic touchdown-passing pace, what’s interesting about the NFL’s leaguewide scoring boom is that instead of seeing a few massive outlying teams or players propping up the rest of the league’s numbers, it feels like just about everyone is getting in on the action this year. That’s especially true at the receiver position: Despite the record numbers the league has produced in the passing game (NFL pass catchers are averaging a record 23.2 receptions per game, a record 260.2 yards per game, and a record 1.8 touchdowns per game), Stefon Diggs’s league-high 813 receiving yards ranks just 61st all time through the first nine weeks of the season. Tyreek Hill’s nine receiving touchdowns is tied for 16th in that stretch. With teams trotting out more three-receiver sets, quarterbacks are spreading the ball around and getting two, three, or sometimes four or more receivers involved. And a handful of rookie pass catchers have benefited from the distribution of booty, including Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson, whose 627 yards ranks fifth among all first-year players in their first nine games since the merger. Cowboys receiver CeeDee Lamb (585 yards) is tied for 10th on that list, while the Bengals’ Tee Higgins (488) and Broncos’ Jerry Juedy (484) both rank inside the top 50 for most yards in a player’s first nine games.

The league’s passing game contributors aren’t alone in their success this year, either. NFL rushing attacks are having a renaissance this year, with teams averaging 117.6 yards per game on the ground through nine weeks―on pace to finish as the second-highest total in the past 20 years (and the highest since 2003). The league’s teams are averaging 1.03 rushing touchdowns per game this year, on pace to be the best mark since the 1979 season, and averaging 4.4 yards per carry (also on pace for an all-time record). Of course, quarterbacks are a big part of this rushing boom, too―with guys like Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson, Cam Newton, Josh Allen, and Carson Wentz all picking up yards and scoring touchdowns with their legs.

Put it all together, and just about every week has produced a beautiful display of offensive fireworks. And while scoring numbers and overall offensive production could dip slightly as the season goes on, the weather gets worse, and injuries (and possibly COVID cases) mount, there’s little reason to believe the league’s end-of-year offensive numbers won’t be historic. The big question, of course, is whether this offensive explosion is a one-off outlier or a sign of things to come. The NFL will have a big decision to make on whether it wants to go back to enforcing ticky-tack or less obvious penalties at a higher rate in 2021 and beyond, and when fans get back into the stands, offenses may see their numbers on the road marginally decline. But for now, I’m just going to enjoy the show, because for those of us who like watching high-scoring, back-and-forth barn burners each and every week, the 2020 season is certainly delivering.