How NFL Offenses Have Transformed over the Past Decade
The NFL hasn't changed much in the last decade, at least not off the field. The same 32 teams in the same 32 cities play the same old 16-game schedule. For those of us on the grown-up side of 30 years old, 2003 doesn't even seem like 10 years ago.
After the 2003 New England Patriots used a relentlessly physical secondary to shut down Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, NFL officials changed the way they enforced pass interference. That provided an immediate boost to passing offense, and offensive coordinators have been trying to press that advantage ever since.
As the NFL looked to the college game for advanced passing inspiration, pro teams spread the field with more wide receivers, passed far more and let their quarterbacks line up in the shotgun to avoid the pass rush.
Single-back offenses fell out of favor, and running backs became far more specialized. With most teams using two, three or four running backs like Swiss army knives, there's less overall running than there was a decade ago, but it's more effective.
In every way, NFL offense has changed dramatically over the past 10 years—and for the better.
Let's look at how the total overall output of NFL offenses have changed since 2003:
So, how was there a 2.4 percent gain in total plays from scrimmage?
Today's no-huddle, "sugar huddle" and hurry-up offenses are putting an emphasis on getting as many plays off as possible. As Mike Martz and the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" showed the league in the early 2000s, when you have an offensive advantage, you want as many repetitions on offense as possible.
Even though the total amount of plays increased 2.4 percent, the total yards generated by NFL offenses went up by 9.08 percent. That's 14,978 extra yards traveled, far more than the extra snaps would explain. Offenses are simply moving the ball much better today than they were a decade ago.
That advantage is even bigger when it comes to scoring: Touchdowns are up 9.23 percent since 2003, a whopping 985 more points. Not only are modern defenses bending; they're breaking, too.
Where's all that extra offense coming from, though?
Let's break down offensive output on a per-play basis:
It's not that tailbacks are any less effective. In fact, average yards per carry went up leaguewide from 4.2 in 2003 to 4.3 in 2012. Teams are moving the ball on the ground, just not all through a single back—and they're better for it.
The average passing attempt does much more damage today than it did in 2003: Net yards per attempt throughout the league went up to 6.2 from 5.8 over the past decade. To put it in perspective, in 2012 that effectiveness gap was roughly the same as the one between Brandon Weeden (5.87 NY/A) and Matthew Stafford (6.29 NY/A).
All told, NFL offenses gained an average of 5.4 yards per play this past season, up from just 5.1 in 2003.
Running vs. Passing
If running and passing are both more effective, just how much have the scales tipped to the aerial game?
That's an increase of 7.9 percent, a pretty hefty bump—yet with an increase of 7.9 passing attempts, NFL offenses gained 15.4 percent more passing yards in 2012. Though passing attempts are up, passing yardage production has grown almost twice as fast.
What about rushing? In 2003, the run/pass balance was 46.7 percent rushing to 53.3 percent passing, a fairly even split. Last season, the scales tipped much more toward the pass: 43.9 percent rushing to 56.1 percent passing.
Despite running 583 fewer times in 2012 than they did in 2003, NFL offenses still gained 98.4 percent as many rushing yards. As defenses try to stop the passing explosion, NFL teams are chewing up yardage underneath, just as Alfred Morris churned the ground underneath Robert Griffin III's deep passes.
Touchdowns mirror the yardage almost exactly: Passing touchdowns increased by 15.3 percent in the last decade.
The Rise of the Shotgun
The biggest change in the way NFL offenses work is illustrated by the rise of the shotgun snap.
How can you spread the field with three, four or five wide receivers without leaving the quarterback out to dry? Let him take the pass from a shotgun snap, with a clear view of the defense and plenty of space between him and hungry defensive linemen.
With an assist from Football Outsiders' Premium Database (subscription required), we can see the change in shotgun use since 2003:
That's unthinkable in today's NFL, where the Houston Texans' 21.6 percent shotgun rate was the smallest in the league. Almost every other team is approaching or above 40 percent, and the Detroit Lions used shotgun 71.3 percent of the time.
Every NFL team made the shotgun a huge part of their base offense, largely because they're much better (and more consistent) at it. Look at the average yards per play gained by NFL teams in the shotgun compared to under center, both 10 years ago and last season:
Across the board, NFL teams are all using the shotgun frequently—and almost all of them are significantly more effective when they do.
Football is a "copycat league," but it's also a cat-and-mouse game between offensive coordinators and defensive coordinators. Chip Kelly's zone-read offense preceded his jump to the NFL, and that might well kick off a rushing renaissance that tips the run/pass scales back toward balance.
Whether tomorrow's teams run or pass more often, though, the question is, can defenses ever stop them?
Much like an NFL rule-enforcement change heralded this offensive revolution, it seems as though only rule changes could roll back the advantage offenses now have over defenses—and don't expect those any time soon.
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