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The Offenses Behind the NFL’s Great Ratings Revival

In 2017, the league’s declining viewership was one of the stories of the season. Heading into Super Bowl LIII, those numbers are steadily on the rise. That’s thanks largely to an offensive revolution—but it isn’t the only factor.

A Rams-Chiefs scoreboard reading 54-51, with referees in front signaling for a touchdown Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Nearly three months ago, the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs put up a combined 1,001 yards of total offense while becoming the first teams in NFL history to simultaneously score 50 points in one game. This wasn’t just fun—and it was fun as hell—it was also significant. For one thing, it foreshadowed the offensive overhauls to come; if you are a franchise owner who watched that game, you probably decided your team needed to score more, as evidenced by seven of the eight head-coaching hires in this cycle coming from offensive backgrounds. The Arizona Cardinals’ press release introducing new head coach Kliff Kingsbury mentioned that he was friends with Rams coach Sean McVay. Historians will likely point to Rams-Chiefs as the crowning moment of the 2018 regular-season offensive boom, one that ended with the top four scoring offenses playing in the conference championship games. The records broken in that November matchup, like all offensive records in this era, will probably fall sooner than we think.

Then there’s the significance of what happened next: NFL ratings spiked. Before that game, ratings were up 3 percent from 2017. From that point forward, ratings went up 9 percent. It’s impossible to say that game caused the spike on its own, but the offense it displayed—the kind that existed all season—was behind a lot of it. “That game could have been five hours, and everyone would have tuned in,” said Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations. “I have never seen a game like it. That’s real entertainment, lead changes, change of possession, young guys, and legends. That’s what drives fan interest. We’ve just got to make sure we’re putting it on the right platform so everyone can see it.”

Offense changed everything in the NFL this season. It was the season we learned that ideas can trickle from the high school and college levels up, instead of solely from the professional game on down. Patrick Mahomes II was the face of the spread-offense evolution, but nearly every team dabbled in it. Quarterbacks stayed healthy—the product of harsh rules preventing defenders from hitting passers too hard. Defenses may not have mattered; we learned that QBs, already increasingly accurate because of all the hours spent practicing at the youth level and helped along by new rules preventing defensive backs from mugging receivers, have easier and more open throws than at any point in history. The effect of all this offense is simple: People like watching it. More people enjoy John Wick than Young Sheldon because there’s simply more action. In 2018, a combination of factors created a league full of John Wicks playing quarterback.

On Sunday the Rams and Patriots, two of the top four offenses, will face off in Super Bowl LIII. It will help explain where the game is going: Two innovative units will employ schemes that are interesting to watch and that feature quarterbacks capable of executing them. The league office has long understood that the perfect recipe for fan interest is a high-scoring game with a low margin of victory. The 2018 regular season produced the most touchdowns in history, as well as the most games decided by three points or fewer. It was, by the league’s definition, just about perfect football.

2018 has changed the trajectory of the league. Ratings for the campaign were up 5 percent, a sizable bounce back after two consecutive down seasons. This month’s Patriots-Chiefs showdown was the most watched title game in five years. The two-game conference championship viewership average hit its highest marks in three years, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Plus, the Rams-Cowboys divisional matchup the week before was the highest-rated Saturday prime-time show in the history of the Fox network. “There are a couple of things that have come together to create a more compelling TV experience,” said Michael Mulvihill, Fox’s executive vice president of research, league operations, and strategy. “Offense is probably the biggest piece of that.”

Virtually every sport is changing visually. The NBA’s 3-point boom makes watching a game very different than it was a decade ago; audiences have typically liked the new experience more. MLB now features nearly as many strikeouts as hits, as analytics have changed the way players approach at-bats—a development that The New York Times branded a “crisis” in August and has led to fears about ratings. Football is trending in a more exciting direction. McVay, Mahomes, Tom Brady, and the sport they’ve built is the most visually arresting brand of the game.

Even in the context of this decade’s historic passing boom, this season has brought a stunning leap forward. Super Bowl LII, between the Eagles and Patriots, was previously the most offensive-minded game in the history of football; the teams combined for 1,151 yards in Philadelphia’s 41-33 win. By the end of the 2018 calendar year, that game would have seemed downright commonplace. Completion percentages and passer ratings are at all-time highs. Hell, the leaguewide yards-per-rush-attempt average (4.42) is higher than in any prior season. Any meaningful offensive record was either broken or challenged over the course of the past 12 months.

That was only one part of the equation. “Increased offense doesn’t help if the results are 42-10. Not only did you create more offense, but you had more close games this year,” Mulvihill said. “Then there’s the part not a lot of people talk about, the coaching decisions. There’s just a more aggressive philosophy. Think about two-point conversion tries and fourth-down tries.”

Both of those are up significantly, Mulvihill points out, with two-point conversion attempts double what they were in 2014 and fourth-down attempts up 100 tries from 2014. “You put these things together, and there are more situations for what I consider inherently high drama,” he said. The natural assumption is that aggression begets more aggression: that even conservative coaches will learn going for two or going for it on fourth downs is a reality of the modern game. Needlessly punting is seen as the enemy of NFL analytics, and it’d stand to reason that it will happen less as teams get smarter. What football will look like in the future is more exciting than what’s appeared on the field in past.

Mulvihill thinks that the flattening of offense and teams borrowing college concepts has helped younger quarterbacks—from Mahomes to L.A.’s Jared Goff to Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield—become stars earlier and thus help with excitement. Drama, of course, is what the NFL needs. The league is past the point of trying to compete with other sports; it’s competing with Netflix and video games for eyeballs. (A few years ago, according to league-office members I’ve spoken with, the NFL stopped comparing itself with other pro leagues and started comparing itself with all of television.) The NFL can solve its competition with Netflix by upping the drama and its competition with video games by looking like a literal video game. This comes in stark contrast with football’s outlook even a year ago, when quarterbacks throwing short of the sticks and generally boring play defined the 2017 season, one that featured a leaguewide dip in passing numbers.

I asked Vincent, a longtime NFL defensive back, whether he could explain why games are so tight now. The explosion of points is easy to understand; the closeness of the contests is not. He thought that has to do with almost every team having generally competent quarterback play. There’s a reason NFL passer rating was at an all-time high this season—because even the worst QBs put up decent passing numbers in 2018. Vincent cites other reasons for the uptick in competitiveness: The NFL salary cap keeps rising more than $10 million each year, and teams have moved toward rostering more players on cheap rookie contracts. That situation, Vincent said, has led to a more even distribution of solid free agents around the league. Then there are the rule changes that prioritize protecting the QB above all else. “A huge part of this, and a huge part of the spike is that the quarterbacks were healthy,” Vincent said. “When Andrew Luck is healthy and standing in the pocket, and Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Philip Rivers are healthy and in the pocket, we got a great game. The rules align with that. It’s not about making the game softer because we still see defenders playing at the highest level. But when we can protect the marquee guy, look at what it does for the sport.”

Vincent mentions the impact this can have on digital platforms. The league’s offensive revolution is shareable. In an era when a five-second highlight can reach more fans on Instagram than some games can on television, having a player like Goff, Mahomes, or Brady throwing passes that go viral helps level the playing field with basketball and soccer, sports known for being online-friendly. “It’s about the moment,” Vincent said.

Football still dominates television, as it has for decades. It’s just competing with its own past benchmarks. While this season hasn’t reached the highs of earlier this decade or wiped out the losses of 2016 and 2017, it’s helped the league rebound in an age when TV ratings are otherwise falling. In the fall, the NFL accounted for 46 of the top 50 shows on television, and the top four most-viewed TV shows for the entire year were all either NFL playoff games or shows about playoff games. If some viewers still have yet to catch onto the significance of the NFL’s offensive push, they’ll find out when Goff and Brady take the field Sunday.