Each of the seven highest-scoring seasons in NFL history took place between 2010 and 2016. Rules making it harder for defensive players to do their jobs led to more opportunities for offenses—and quarterbacks in particular—to explode. Several teams led by in-their-prime superstar quarterbacks—Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Michael Vick, among others—took advantage.
Had defenses finally caught up?
The first month of the 2018 regular season strongly indicates that the 2017 campaign was a low-scoring aberration.
The average NFL game this season has featured 48.1 points, which is up nearly 10 percent from 43.9 during the first four weeks of the 2017 season. It's on pace to become the highest-scoring season in NFL history by a 327-point margin over the 2013 campaign. That's equivalent to more than 46 converted touchdowns.
A few additional points:
- This is just about on track to be the first 1,400-touchdown season in league history. Only three seasons have featured 1,300 touchdowns.
- NFL games are averaging 725 total yards, which is a record pace. Only twice in league history has that total been north of 700 for an entire season.
- Teams are averaging 5.6 yards per play. That total has never been higher than 5.5 and is way up from 5.3 last season.
Last year, Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio suggested low point totals in September might have been a result of "the cumulative effect" of "reduced offseason workouts, reduced intensity of training camp practices [and] reduced padded practices." While that's a fair hypothesis, it seems as though the league has gotten to a point at which that lack of preparation might not matter.
Scoring might be up even more if teams could still practice the way they did under the last collective bargaining agreement. That 48.1 number would undoubtedly be even higher if teams were still kicking extra points from the two-yard line rather than the 15-yard line. Kickers have already missed 14 extra points this season, whereas they missed only eight during the entire 2014 season—the last under the old rule.
Unsurprisingly, this is all about the quarterbacks:
- Ten qualified quarterbacks have passer ratings above 100. Five have completion rates above 70. Five have at least 10 touchdowns and two or fewer interceptions. Three have yards-per-attempt averages above 9.0—a mark that's been hit only 13 times in modern NFL history. Those numbers are up from eight, two, one and two at this point in 2017. They're up from eight, two, one and one at this point in 2016.
- The leaguewide completion rate is 65.4. It's never been higher than 63.0.
- The leaguewide yards-per-attempt average is 7.5. It hasn't been that high in a half-century.
- The leaguewide passer rating is 92.6. It's never been higher than 88.4, and was 85.1 last season.
- The leaguewide passing touchdowns-per-game rate is 1.8. It's never been higher than 1.6.
- Offenses are averaging fewer rushing yards per game (106.7) than in any other season in NFL history except 1994 and 1999 (104.3 and 106.5, respectively).
As for records, if the season continued on at this pace...
- Brees would set a new single-season record for completion percentage (75.8), while both Eli Manning (74.2) and Jared Goff (72.4) would also break the previous record (72.0, set by Brees last season).
- Roethlisberger would set a new single-season record for passing yards (5,656), while Goff (5,624), Kirk Cousins of the Minnesota Vikings (5,548) and Derek Carr of the Oakland Raiders (5,492) would also break the previous record (5,477, set by Peyton Manning in 2013).
- Patrick Mahomes would set a new single-season record for passing touchdowns (56), breaking Manning's record of 55 set in 2013.
- Goff would set a new modern-era record for yards per attempt (10.5), breaking Kurt Warner's record of 9.9 set in 2000. Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is on the same pace, but that's unlikely to hold up now that Jameis Winston has taking the starting job back in Tampa Bay.
- Goff would set a new single-season record for passer rating (127.3), while Mahomes (126.5) would also break the previous record (122.5, set by Rodgers in 2011).
This is all a bit inflated by what happened this weekend. Chase Stuart of Football Perspective crunched the numbers to determine that this was the "greatest passing week in passing history."
"The average passer rating so far has been an outstanding 99.3, which would make it the second-best in NFL history. But what's even more incredible are the other passing stats: The average ANY/A has been an insanely high 7.16! The big difference between passer rating and ANY/A is completion percentage, which is only reflected in the former statistic. An absurdly high completion percentage made the Week 2 passer rating so high (69.4%), while teams have 'only' completed 65.0% of passes so far this week. But while teams averaged 7.6 yards per attempt in Week 2, they've averaged 7.9 yards/attempt so far this week."
A few nuggets to back that up:
- Per the NFL, there were a record five 400-yard passing performances in Week 4, and the 12 400-yard games recorded by passers this season is a record at the four-week mark.
- Also according to the league, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck became just the 11th signal-caller in league history to pass for at least 450 yards and four touchdowns without throwing an interception in a single game in Sunday's loss to the Houston Texans. But Luck wasn't even the first quarterback to accomplish that feat this week, because Goff did the same Thursday night against the Vikings.
As the season wears on and the weather gets colder, there's room for passers to slow down while maintaining a record-breaking collective pace. That's how hot the league's passing offenses have been this season.
What do we chalk it up to?
Though teams pass more frequently now than ever before, sack rates are low and quarterbacks take fewer hits than in the past. As a result, we're basically seeing two generations of great quarterbacks at the same time.
Legends like Brady, Brees, Roethlisberger and Rivers continue to put up huge numbers in their late 30s. Meanwhile, a new wave of young guns has finally emerged, with Goff, Mahomes, Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson, Carr, Dak Prescott, Jimmy Garoppolo, Marcus Mariota and Mitchell Trubisky all flashing early in their careers. Throw in quarterbacks currently in their prime—Rodgers, Ryan, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Kirk Cousins, Matthew Stafford and Alex Smith—and the NFL might no longer be a league with fewer franchise quarterbacks than franchises.
That was almost the case last season, too, but the major difference was that many of those quarterbacks failed to stay healthy. Rodgers, Luck, Watson, Wentz, Carson Palmer and Ryan Tannehill missed a combined 62 games, which contributed to last season's drop in offensive production.
The NFL has turned into an arms race. Per our research, teams are passing 61 percent of the time, and the game has shifted toward offense and passing to such a degree that those areas receive the vast majority of the attention.
Fifteen of the 20 head coaches hired since 2016 were offensive specialists, and gurus like Doug Pederson, Sean McVay, Matt Nagy, Kyle Shanahan, Doug Marrone and Anthony Lynn have already had a lot of success. They're smart, creative and bold, and we're seeing that on the scoreboard.
The Titans could have settled for a 23-23 tie Sunday against Philadelphia, but first-year head coach Mike Vrabel rolled the dice on a 4th-and-2 from the Philadelphia 32-yard line, eschewing a 50-yard field-goal attempt that would have tied it. It paid off, resulting in three extra points when Tennessee found the end zone three plays later.
Minutes later, the Colts could have settled for a 34-34 tie against Houston, but first-year head coach Frank Reich rolled the dice on a 4th-and-4 from his own 43-yard line with less than 30 seconds remaining in overtime. It didn't pay off, but it resulted in three extra points when the Texans kicked a field goal to win.
Pederson has developed a reputation as a gambler, too, and it seems as though the league is finally coming around to taking calculated chances on fourth down. There's been an eight percent rise in fourth-down conversion attempts this season compared to last September.
This mentality shift doesn't solely explain why scoring is up, but it's a contributing factor. Punts are an enemy of points, and punt rates are also down significantly this year.
Roughing the passer
Defensive penalties have risen by seven percent this season, particularly roughing-the-passer calls. The league is emphasizing its body-weight provision with regard to those plays, which is part of the reason there's been a 53 percent rise in such penalties through four weeks, per our calculations using data from NFLPenalties.com.
That isn't the entire reason offensive passing numbers have exploded, but it has worked to extend drives more often.
Put it all together, and the result is fairly predictable.
"Look at the rules," Jaguars defensive lineman Calais Campbell told NBC's Peter King last month. "I know the NFL is trying to make the game safer, but the safer they make it, the easier they make it for the offense. Offense makes good TV. The quarterbacks are the rock stars of the league, and they want to protect them. My job's harder."
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.