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It’s Time to Get Used to the Weird, Unpredictable, High-Scoring NFL

Scoring is up. Scoring margins are down. The Cowboys can look lost on offense one week, and then hang 40 on the best defense in the league the next. This version of pro football is here to stay.

Dak Prescott and Ben Roethlisberger Getty Images/Ringer illustration

League executives in New York have an ideal formula for high television ratings. They’ve explained it to me, simply, as: more points and a close margin of victory. That seems obvious, but it’s not easy to get there.

If you watched, say, Eli Manning or Blake Bortles on most Sundays and then also watched Patrick Mahomes II or Jared Goff, you would not think that this is a league where every team is bunched together. You would also not think that the mere presence of a handful of Bortles-esque entities would be enough to keep scoring down leaguewide. You’d also be wrong on both counts.

This season has been the NFL’s dream. Heading into Sunday, the league was on pace for its lowest average margin of victory—9.96 points per game—in 86 years, according to the league’s numbers. The NFL is also on pace to set the record for the most overtime games in a season. And on top of that, the weekly scoring average is at an all-time high.

More points and a shrinking margin of victory have led to an increase in television ratings, as the league office predicted. This spike comes after those numbers had dropped off in the previous two seasons. There were too many game windows two years ago, but the other big problem was boring football. Being boring isn’t an issue anymore.

The increasing parity in the NFL has created an annual chorus of commentators, analysts, and fans marveling at how the league has gone haywire. SB Nation recently mentioned the “weird start to the NFL season.” Last year, Newsweek dubbed the season “really, really odd.” At this time last year, the Rams had a better record than the Seahawks, but the Seahawks were still considered to be a significantly better team because the Rams’ success was supposedly one of the many bizarre early-season happenings. A year later, the Rams are the only undefeated team remaining.

The “weirdness” this year is a series of seemingly unlikely events: Brock Osweiler won a game against the Khalil Mack–led Bears. The Dallas Cowboys looked like the worst offense in the league over the first five weeks, then hung 40 on the alleged best defense in the league, the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Bucs became early-season darlings and now look incapable of winning a game. The Pittsburgh Steelers came into the season as one of the AFC’s big favorites, and then opened the year by tying the Browns. The Patriots lost to the Jaguars and Lions, looking awful in the process; three weeks later, they scored 43 points on the previously undefeated Chiefs.

That all sure seems weird, but when everyone is scoring lots of points and coaches are innovating every week, there’s bound to be surprising results every weekend. It’s not weird; it’s just what the NFL is now.

The new volatility is likely not a fad, either. The “best defenses” can be torched at any given point. There are too many scoring records or passing records to mention here. Sunday night, the Patriots became the first team in history to not punt or commit a penalty in a game. Derek Carr averaged 0.1 yards per air completion Sunday. Carr’s coach, Jon Gruden, earlier this year became the first guy with a 10-year contract to trade his franchise player away for seemingly no reason. Marcus Mariota got sacked more Sunday than Dan Marino did in six different seasons. Adam Thielen might just set every receiving record imaginable this year, and his quarterback might launch a similar assault on the record books. These are strange times.

The shrinking margin of victory plays a huge role in producing what appear to be random results. There’s a lot of luck involved in one-score games—and heading into Sunday, the 2018 NFL season was tied for the most one-score games in history through five weeks. According to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, who details one-score luck here, performance in one-score games doesn’t necessarily carry over from one year to the next. When, say, a team wins six more one-score games than it loses one season, it’ll typically fall back down to earth the next. On average, that team’s record will drop by three wins the following year.

As always, it all comes back to quarterbacks. Scores are bound to be closer when most teams have a competent signal-caller. The NFL has made it easier than ever to play quarterback, and almost everyone is getting better. Mahomes is an MVP candidate on pace to set all kinds of records, but Joe Flacco has achieved something more shocking: He’s become a generally serviceable quarterback.

In 2008, the average quarterback had a rating of 83. There are 25 players this season with a higher rating. There are nine quarterbacks this season with a higher rating than Aaron Rodgers’s career mark, which is the highest of all time. Despite often looking like he’s never played football before, Eli Manning has a quarterback rating though six weeks that is three points off of his career high. In fact, it’s 17 points higher than it was in 2007, the year he won his first Super Bowl. Say what you will about Manning, but the Giants’ average scoring margin (minus-7.5) is within one score. In other words, they’re a few lucky bounces away from being in the thick of the playoff race. Even with Eli Manning behind center, the floor is not that low.

It has long been said that there is no defensive answer to a perfectly thrown pass, but we’re getting to the point where offenses are so efficient that there’s no defensive answer to any pass. The world-beating Jaguars defense looked helpless as the Dallas Cowboys—I dare you to name three of their wide receivers—ran some fairly routine plays designed to beat the Jacksonville Cover 3.

Across the league, the difference between the best and the worst appears smaller than ever before. In 2016 and 2017, no positional unit was among the best in history, according to Football Outsiders’ vital DVOA wrap-up from earlier this year. There have been virtually no historical outliers on either side of the ball.

“If you’ve been reading Football Outsiders for a long time, you know one of our main axioms is that offense is more consistent than defense,” Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz wrote. “In 2017, the exact opposite was true.” Since Football Outsiders started tracking team consistency from year to year, teams that were good on offense tended to be good the following year, and vice versa, while projecting defense was more of a crapshoot. Why did it reverse? Maybe because offensive schemes are changing so quickly, and there was a sea change in the league. Or maybe only a few teams left in the NFL have figured out defense, and thus those teams stay atop of the pecking order.

Tevin Coleman reaching the end zone for the Atlanta Falcons, as Tampa Bay Buccaneers players look on
One thing we can still count on: the Buccaneers defense giving up points.
Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

What matters changes so quickly that even if you’re on trend one week, you might be lost the next. If you’re a year or two behind, you’re screwed. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whose recently fired defensive coordinator could not shut up about stopping the run in July, are among those teams not on trend. (“You know, everybody sometimes gets fixated on sacks and putting pressure on the quarterback …” Mike Smith said.) Meanwhile, the number of runs in a game has cratered relative to NFL history. Of course, that didn’t stop the Bucs from drafting a run-stuffing defensive lineman in the first round this year. Chargers standout rookie safety Derwin James—who looks like a future star—would have been a nicer pick for Tampa Bay.

Sloppiness on the offensive line or mind-boggling defensive breakdowns can often be the fault of one player, and that’s just another factor that creates more unpredictable outcomes. Teams can’t even practice in pads every week during the season. This rule change, enacted after 2011, dovetailed with increasingly young rosters across the league. The last three seasons (at least) have each broken the record for youngest average rosters in NFL history. In late September, ESPN’s Mike Sando asked a coach what he thought of the wild outcomes across the first few weeks of the regular season. The coach responded by asking Sando how he was enjoying Week 3 of training camp. Plenty of teams feel like the early part of the year is essentially an extended preseason. Since there are more young players learning how to play with fewer practice hours than ever, and because teams have less time to jell, it’s simply reality that certain players—and entire franchises—will look much worse in September and October than in November. Either entire teams forgot how to tackle, or sloppiness is now just a normal part of the first few months of the NFL regular season.

Amid the chaos, teams will sometimes find themselves scrambling for a solution. A wonderfully insightful Twitter thread from Bucs beat writer Greg Auman detailed how, desperate to stop any offense at all, the Buccaneers turned to a defense they haven’t used before on Sunday, one that featured six defensive backs. They used it only on third-and-long … and gave up a first down all four times it was employed. Two of those drives ended in touchdowns.

It’s nice to know that in this wild 2018 season, we’ve got at least one thing we can set our watch by: the Bucs defense giving up points. As for everything else? Well, it’s not normal, but nothing is anymore.