It's been a strange season in the NFL, where all 32 teams have revealed blatant flaws and star players have been dropping like flies. But while parity is a thing and injuries happen, it's been especially weird to see offensive production decline in what's clearly become an offensive-oriented game .
The majority of the league's offenses have underachieved, and that was particularly evident in Week 7. There were three shutouts in the NFL on Sunday, matching the total number for the entire 2016 season. And three more teams were held to just a single score. In other words, 20 percent of the teams that took the field in Week 7 were unable to score more than once.
That rate was just four percent in the 2016 season.
In the first seven weeks last season, 15 teams scored fewer than 10 points in a single game. In the first seven weeks this season, it's already happened 27 times (only five short of last year's 17-week regular-season total of 32).
A few more facts to consider:
- NFL games are averaging 43.8 points, which is down 3.9 percent from 45.6 in 2016. It's the lowest rate in the NFL since 2009.
- NFL games are averaging 670.2 yards, which is down 4.4 percent from 700.8 in 2016. It's also the lowest rate in the NFL since 2009.
- NFL offenses are averaging 5.30 yards per play, which is down 3.7 percent from 5.5 in 2016. Again, that's the lowest rate in the NFL this decade.
Declines in the range of 3-5 percent don't indicate an epidemic, but combined with a substantial increase in single-digit scoring outputs, this should probably be considered statistically significant with the 2017 regular season 41 percent complete.
And when you consider that offensive production typically cools off along with the autumn and winter temperatures, the year over year comparison produces a slightly wider gap. Per-game yardage totals are down six percent from the first seven weeks of the 2016 regular season.
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So what's going on? A lot of it might have to do with poor pass protection, which it certainly seems has been more prevalent this year than in recent campaigns.
NFL games are averaging just as many rushing yards as they did last season (218.4 versus 217.8), and teams are averaging just about as many yards per carry (4.11 versus 4.19). Quarterbacks are completing just as many passes (62.9 percent versus 63.0 percent), but the league-wide interception rate has risen nine percent from 2.27 in 2016 to 2.47 in 2017 and the league-wide sack rate has exploded by 17 percent from 5.76 in 2016 to 6.74 in 2017.
The sack rate hasn't been higher than that since 2004.
|Year-over-year sack statistics through Week 7|
|Pro Football Reference|
Football Outsiders tracks a statistic called adjusted sack rate, which—as the site puts it calculates "sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent."
Per Pro Football Focus, NFL quarterbacks have been pressured on 34.7 percent of their dropbacks this season. At this point last year, the league-wide average was 32.5. That's an increase of nearly seven percent. And that pressure has been more lucrative for defenses, who are recording one sack per 5.4 pressured dropbacks this season compared to one sack per 5.9 at the seven-week mark in 2016.
Offenses aren't just surrendering more pressure, but they're giving up higher-quality pressure, if you will.
So teams are averaging far fewer yards per dropback because they're taking more sacks and throwing more picks.
The numbers above don't fully explain why quarterbacks have thrown more interceptions, because there were actually more picks thrown by quarterbacks under pressure during the first seven weeks of the 2016 season than there have been this season. But that uptick isn't close to as significant as the rise in sack rate and is likely somewhat of an aberration.
Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer tossed 11 picks in six games after being thrown to the wolves to start the year. Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers is on pace to throw an uncharacteristic career-high 23 interceptions and veterans like Andy Dalton of the Cincinnati Bengals, Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens and Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers have all thrown a lot of unpressured picks.
It's probably safe to expect a correction there.
Still, how many more picks have come after sacks forced quarterbacks to try to make big plays when facing second- or third-and-long? Even when pressure doesn't lead directly to interceptions, it can lead to sacks, which increase the likelihood of a quarterback throwing a pick on an upcoming down.
So this is mainly about offensive-line play. And it does feel as though several lines—Houston, Arizona, Seattle, Cincinnati, the Giants, Indianapolis, Detroit, Denver—have been exceptionally bad in pass protection this season.
It's easy to sit back and declare that lines just aren't prepared for the start of the season these days because they aren't given enough padded practice time in the offseason, training camp and the preseason. But the same practice rules have been in place since the current collective bargaining agreement was adopted in 2011, so that can't fully explain this spike.
It's possible NFL offensive lines have reached a tipping point in that regard, and that during the first few years of the new CBA, plenty of offensive lines still possessed continuity leftover from before 2011. Six years later, every line has changed dramatically and the majority of active starting offensive linemen weren't in the NFL when the last CBA arguably made it easier for players at that position to hone their craft alongside their peers.
That could be a factor, but if it were the only explanation for this trend, we would have seen declining offensive numbers and increasing pressure and sack numbers in the years leading up to 2017. We have not.
Instead, consider another unfortunate theme thus far in 2017: A lot of great players have been getting hurt, and many of them are offensive linemen.
Prior to the season, the Seahawks lost left tackle George Fant, the Lions lost left tackle Taylor Decker, and the Saints lost left tackle Terron Armstead and center Max Unger.
The Ravens have been without stud guard Marshal Yanda for all but two games, four-time Pro Bowler Mike Iupati has missed all but one game for the Cardinals, veteran center Ryan Kalil has missed all but two for the Panthers. Guard Kyle Long has missed time in Chicago, and bookend tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga haven't been healthy in Green Bay. The Colts have been without promising young center Ryan Kelly and have now lost guard Jack Mewhort.
And even successful offenses like the Chiefs', Redskins' and Saints' probably could be scoring a lot more points if not for the fact their lines have been hit hard.
Throw in a lengthy holdout from stalwart Texans left tackle Duane Brown, and it's safe to conclude this has been an exceptional year for absent offensive linemen.
And now things could go from bad to worse with the Browns and Eagles losing potential Hall of Fame left tackles Joe Thomas and Jason Peters on Sunday and Monday, respectively.
And then there are negligent teams like the Bengals, who have suffered from O-line issues all season after inexplicably letting their best two offensive linemen escape as free agents. The Ravens also let a key offensive lineman (Rick Wagner) go one year after allowing an even better one (Kelechi Osemele) to dart to Oakland. The Colts and Bears have also had continuity issues up front and the Giants simply refused to upgrade in the offseason, despite major questions surrounding both of their offensive tackles.
Maybe all of these teams are suffering more than they would have in years past. Maybe there's some validity to the notion that offensive linemen aren't being groomed well enough at the college level, where spread offenses—which theoretically don't ask as much of most offensive linemen from a blocking standpoint—have become ubiquitous. But that isn't new either, and statistical trends didn't bear that out in recent seasons.
Did it take an unusual rash of offensive-line injuries for the NFL to finally get to a point at which offensive statistics finally reinforced the idea that offensive-line play has diminished in quality as a result of relatively new practice rules and/or the contemporary divide between the college game and the pro game?
That makes sense, since there probably isn't one overarching explanation for the dip in offensive production this season. It might be a perfect storm comprised of recent offensive-line trends along with a surge in injuries at those positions.
Just look at the league's worst offenses on paper—teams like the Browns, Dolphins, Giants, Bengals, Cardinals, Colts, Bears, 49ers, Broncos, Ravens, Panthers, Chargers and Lions. Almost all of them have offensive lines that have lacked continuity and/or have been unable to stay healthy.
That's not a coincidence, and it's an indication that this offensive downturn is unlikely to completely correct itself this season.
If indeed that's how 2017 plays out, the big question entering 2018 will be whether this is the new normal. And if it is, the most pass-happy era in NFL history could begin to die, with offensive minds presumably adjusting by reestablishing the balance that professional football offenses have generally lacked for much of the 21st century.
Big changes could be on the horizon.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.