So much for the NFL’s crisis on offense. After seeing passing stats drop leaguewide and scoring hit a decade-low in 2017, we’ve watched in awe as offensive numbers have skyrocketed in the first month of this season. With Patrick Mahomes II and Jared Goff leading the charge, the league’s explosion on offense has conjured memories of the ’98 home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, when records weren’t just broken but absolutely annihilated.
Of course, steroids and a juiced ball powered baseball’s home-run eruption in the mid-’90s and early 2000s, but in the PED- and deflated-ball-regulated NFL, neither of those are principal factors here. So what’s behind the NFL’s massive jump in offense so far this season?
The NFL, for better or worse, is a quarterback-centric league. And right now, passers are posting historic levels of volume and efficiency: In Week 4, QBs combined for a collective 9,074 passing yards—the first week ever in which passers averaged 300 passing yards per team game—and notched an average 98.2 passer rating. Through four weeks, quarterbacks have completed 2,997 passes for 34,238 yards and 227 touchdowns with a 94.4 passer rating, all highs for the decade. And it’s not just a few teams propping up the rest:
After four weeks, few single-season passing records appear safe. Mahomes (14 touchdowns) is on pace to break Peyton Manning’s touchdown record (55). Goff (127.3) and Mahomes (126.5) are both on pace to surpass Aaron Rodgers’s record for passer rating (122.5). Ben Roethlisberger (1,414 yards), Goff (1,406), Kirk Cousins (1,387), and Derek Carr (1,373) are all on pace to break Manning’s record for passing yards (5,477). And that QB production has trickled down to skill players: Julio Jones (502 yards) is on pace to break Calvin Johnson’s receiving-yards record (1,964). Michael Thomas (42 catches) and Adam Thielen (40) are both on pace to break Marvin Harrison’s record for receptions (143), and Alvin Kamara’s not far off (35). Calvin Ridley (six touchdown catches)—a rookie—is on pace to break Randy Moss’s touchdowns record (23).
The first and most obvious explanation for this incredible spike in production is the combination of rule tweaks and points of emphasis the NFL enacted for 2018. The new “helmet rule” applies to everyone on the field but most strongly benefits pass catchers and runners, who are now protected from hits defenders initiate with the helmet. The catch rules have been softened, too: Players no longer have to control the ball through the ground, and slight movement of it throughout the process of a catch is no longer automatically seen as a loss of control. Additionally, the league made illegal contact downfield a point of emphasis, and the highly controversial body-weight rules for hitting quarterbacks give passers an added layer of protection.
All of these changes favor offense, even if their well-intentioned purpose is principally to improve the safety of the game. Quarterbacks can now stand in the pocket more confidently than ever, knowing they’re less likely to get clobbered by a defender. Receivers can roam the middle of the field with relative ease, knowing those knockout hits from safeties are now outlawed. And, while this is still flying under the radar, it’s increasingly difficult for defenders to even touch opposing pass catchers at all, as illegal contact penalties have tripled year over year. Put together, we’ve seen a historic rate of penalty-induced first downs in 2018—leading to more yards and points for offenses around the league.
These rules changes are just some of a confluence of factors that have boosted passing and scoring numbers. The NFL has also experienced a spike in quality quarterbacks, is in the middle of a sea change in offensive philosophy (in part due to extraordinary levels of offensive-coordinator turnover this year), has gotten a little luck in the health department, and is likely benefiting from some good old-fashioned variance.
Let’s start with the NFL’s quarterback situation, which seems to have quickly transformed from a major problem for the league to one of its biggest strengths. The Packers, Colts, and Dolphins all got a boost by getting Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, and Ryan Tannehill back from injury and onto the field. An extraordinary QB free-agent market helped distribute quality passers like Kirk Cousins and Case Keenum to teams in need. And perhaps most importantly, the last three draft classes have produced what looks to be the future at the position: From Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes II, Mitchell “six touchdowns” Trubisky, Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, and Baker Mayfield, to yes, perhaps even Josh Allen, the league’s next generation has stepped into starting roles. There are varying levels of talent, but most squads at least have some semblance of skill and potential at that spot—a big change from the last few seasons. The gulf between the best QBs and the worst isn’t as large as most people might think, either, and it’s likely going to shrink as the year goes on and players like Rosen, Mayfield, and Allen find their footing.
The league’s new quarterback dynamic may never have emerged if not for decision makers’ reluctant acceptance of college-style offenses. Coaches and GMs around the the NFL seem to have finally accepted that trying to fit a square peg (college QB) into a round hole (pro-style offense) just doesn’t work—and that building an offense around college-style concepts does.
It’s not that the Air Raid, the read option, and RPOs are new to the NFL, exactly, but in the past they’ve typically been reserved for the handful of teams forward-thinking and bold enough to implement them at any given time. Now, as Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley told The Ringer’s Kevin Clark, the difference is that the so-called college offense is now woven into every pro scheme. Shotgun looks, three- and four-receiver sets, and the simple ideas of using deception and playing fast are here to stay.
The NFL game is now played like basketball on grass, where spacing and tempo have replaced old-school smashmouth principles. Passers are more efficient than ever because coaches are spreading out receivers, tight ends, and running backs into space—using bunch formations, motion, and mesh-route concepts to confuse coverage. Another mainstay of the college game—the pre- and post-snap jet sweep or orbit motion, is being used more than ever. Last year, teams ran 170 jet-sweep plays (either true handoffs or “touch” passes, which are essentially handoffs) to gain 870 yards, per Sports Info Solutions’ game charting. This year, in just a month of action (and excluding this week’s Monday Night Football), offenses have already run those sweep plays 69 times, gaining 531 yards—on pace for a 144 percent yardage increase year to year—at an average of 7.7 yards per play. That’s a small sample size, of course, but it represents a monumental jump over last year, when teams averaged 5.1 yards on sweep plays.
Some of the best offenses in the league—particularly those of the Rams and Chiefs—have used these jet sweeps to confuse defenses, and a handful more like the Chargers, Texans, and 49ers have used the sweep action, without an actual handoff, as a type of play-action fake meant to pull defenders in the middle toward the sideline and get defenders on the edge to take false steps. It’s worked, especially in the passing game, where, per Sports Info Solutions, pass plays involving a fake-sweep motion have produced 8.6 yards per attempt—a full yard better than the league average (7.5) on all other passes.
Loved this play design from #Cowboys. The jet-sweep action causes the LBs to flow one way, giving the OL great angles to get their blocks in space, before throwing the screen to the other. pic.twitter.com/tpaE36CZSi— John Owning (@JohnOwning) October 1, 2018
College-style spacing, formations, route concepts, and pre-snap deception all help receivers create separation. And, as NFL Next Gen Stats analyst Mike Band notes, we’ve seen a huge jump in pass attempts to “wide-open” receivers (defined as pass catchers who have 3-plus yards of separation when the ball arrives) over the last three seasons (from 36.6 percent in 2016 to 38.7 percent in 2017 to 42.2 percent this year). Part of this may be due to a higher reliance on running backs as easy dump-off options out of the backfield, but it’s clear that NFL play-callers are scheming up ways to get the ball out quickly to wide-open pass catchers.
That’s likely part of the reason teams are passing more this year, an indication that the league may finally be realizing that passing is more efficient than running. Through four weeks, the average team’s pass rate (pass attempts plus sacks) is 60.6 percent, a full 3 points higher than the season-long average last year (57.6). We can see that in play-calling tendencies this year, particularly on traditionally run-heavy first downs. Through four weeks, teams are passing 51.6 percent of the time on first down, on track to finish 4.5 percentage points higher than last year’s mark (47.1) and the highest pass rate of first-down passing this century. Breaking out play-calling to all neutral-situation downs (first and second down, in the first three quarters, with the score within eight points), pass rates this year (52 percent) are higher than in each of the last two years (50 percent last year, 51 percent in 2016), per Sharp Football Stats.
Football is a zero-sum game, and this season’s offensive explosion has come at the expense of defenses that have, for the most part, struggled to adapt. The season’s long; scoring may wane as defensive coaches adjust to new players and new play-callers; passing efficiency may drop as players get hurt and as the weather gets colder. But that’s no sure thing, and with offenses showing little sign of slowing down, we might be getting closer to talking about how the league’s going to solve its defensive crisis.