The NFL nation continues to buzz over the breathtaking shootout the Rams and Chiefs provided Monday night, a 54-51 duel that reached the pre-game hype. This, just weeks after the Saints outgunned the Rams 45 - 31 in the Superdome.
Fans love offense, and the weekly output from the Saints, Chiefs, and Rams raises hopes of more shootouts in the NFC playoffs and in the Super Bowl. NFL stats suggest their hopes may indeed come to pass.
We’re in the middle of either a record year for offense league-wide, or the worst season for NFL defense - or perhaps both.
I’ve looked league numbers using just two metrics - points scored and points allowed, to look for trends. Is offense really up long term, or is 2018 an outlier? And how much is sub-par defensive play contributing to the pinball-like scores we see week to week?
Defense - the declining power of 17
Defensive coordinators around the league have a weekly target - 17 points. The maxim is written into some coordinator’s playbooks. If your unit can hold an opponent to 17 points or fewer, you have an excellent chance of winning that week’s game.
The term elite is relative, but with respect to scoring defense, it has referred to units that allow on average 14 points per game. For this study, I decided to look at points per game allowed from the 2000 NFL season to the present. I went year by year and measured two defensive metrics - which teams qualified in a given year as “elite” (allowing 14.9 points or fewer) and how many met that “good” standard of allowing 17.9 points per week or fewer.
I have found that the NFL’s defensive arc can be defined in three six-year trends.
2000 - 2005: the last of the dominators
This period saw two of the NFL’s best-ever defensive units carry their teams to titles. The 2000 Ravens set the standards for stinginess in a 16-game season, allowing just 10.9 points per game on their way to the Lombardi. Their pop-gun offensive wasn’t much to look at. QB Trent Dilfer alternated handoffs to power back Jamal Lewis with passes to TE Shannon Sharpe. It didn’t matter. Their defense allowed just one offensive TD in its four-game playoff run.
Two years later the Tampa Bay Bucs brushed up to the Ravens' standard, holding opponents to 12.2 points per game in their Super Bowl run. From a league’s perspective, this was the twilight of the elite D. There were eight defenses in this six-year span who allowed 14 or fewer points in a season. What’s more, roughly a quarter of the league’s defenses, an average of 7.4 per year, allowed 17.9 points per game or fewer in this span.
2006 - 2011: the mini elite
This six-year period saw the same number of elite defenses - eight - meeting the 14.9 ppg or fewer standard but the number of good defenses fell by nearly 50%. The average per season fell to 4.1 from 7.3 the five years prior.
The lion’s share of defensive accolades was claimed by two defenses, the Dick LeBeau-led Steelers and the Rex Ryan-led Ravens. Half of the elite ratings were posted by those two groups, three by the Steelers. The Ravens finished in the top three in scoring defense in five of those six years; the Steelers were top three in four of those years.
2012 - 2017: resetting to 16
These six years saw a decided drop-off in defensive stops. Only once did a defense go a full season allowing fewer than 15 points per game. That mark was attained by the lone elite unit of the period, Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” defense, which allowed 14.4 points per game in their Super Bowl winning 2013 campaign. That unit allowed the fewest points in four consecutive years (2012 - 2015) but the new standard for elite here has to be reset at 15.9 points or fewer. Only six defenses met that standard and the average of teams that met the “good” standard of 17.9 ppg or fewer fell from 4.1 in the 2006 - 2011 period to 2.8 in this period. No single season saw more than three defenses rank as “good.”
2018 - When good just isn’t good anymore?
The ten-game 2018 season has seen a new, lowered standard for defensive toughness. For the first time this century, not one defense is allowing fewer than 18 points per game. Not only are there no elite defenses in the NFL this season, there isn’t even a single good defense going by the old standard. Some units are playing relatively well - the Ravens, the Titans, Cowboys, and Bears, but the points average continues to rise.
What might account for this? I can think of two factors off the top of my head.
First, where have the elite safeties gone? Look at the elite units since 2000 and nearly all of them had two common components - a top-level pass rush and an elite playmaker at the safety position. The Super Bowl Bucs had John Lynch. The Steelers and Ravens had Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed respectively helming their secondaries and the Legion of Boom had an in-prime Earl Thomas backing up elite secondary cohorts.
Second, changes to the league’s CBA and the rulebook may be having a real detrimental effect on defensive play. The most recent collective bargaining agreement lessened the amount of practice time, eliminating two a days in the pre-season.
Other changes, the elimination of kickoff return wedges and the redefinition of legal hits on receivers and quarterbacks, have defanged defensive play to an extent. Last year, I spoke to ESPN’s KC Joyner, who has published his Scientific Football books since 2005. Joyner has watched and graded every NFL game played in that time and he remarked that he’s never seen worse tackling league-wide than he has in the last few seasons. It’s no coincidence that poorer tackling has resulted in more points allowed.
Offense - A new offensive explosion, or a one-year anomaly?
While defensive effectiveness has slowly dropped in six-year steps, offensive prowess has not increased in tune with defensive decline. I did a similar survey on points scored per game, looking at offenses that averaged over 30 points per game in a season and those that topped 35 points per game, a truly elite level that comes about once a decade or so.
The numbers have been remarkably consistent - until this year. Here’s a recap, using the same time frames that were applied to defense.
2000 - 2005
Number of 30 ppg. seasons - 6
Number of 35 ppg. seasons - 0
The spirit of Don Coryell lives. The elite seasons were divided among two units that used the same offensive scheme, Mike Martz’s “greatest show on turf” Rams squads and Al Saunders’ Chiefs offenses, led by all-purpose back Priest Holmes. They posted five of the six 30 point plus campaigns. The sixth was Peyton Manning’s 2004 Colts.
2006 - 2011
Number of 30 ppg. seasons - 7
Number of 35 ppg. seasons - 2
This is the period of Tom Brady. His Patriots spread offenses notched three of the seven 30 points per game seasons in that six-year span. His 2007 offense averaged 36.8 ppg. en route to a 16-0 regular season. Aaron Rodgers’ 2011 Packers were the other offense to top 35 points per game.
2012 - 2017
Number of 30 ppg. seasons - 7
Number of 35 ppg. seasons - 1
This most recent period was capped by two Peyton Manning Broncos offenses. Manning’s 2013 Denver offense was the only 35 points per game unit of this span. They averaged 37.2 points per game before they were throttled in the Super Bowl by the Legion of Boom. The other five are spread out between five other offenses. Brady posted one more 30 point season, as did Aaron Rodgers. Matt Ryan topped 30 in his Super Bowl 2016 season. Cam Newton did the same in his Super Bowl 2015 season.
The first eighteen seasons of the century show a decided pattern in offensive profligacy. There is on average one 30 points per game offense per season. There have been only three 35 point per game offenses in the years 2000 - 2017. What’s more, high scoring has not led to titles. Only one 30 points plus offense, the 2009 New Orleans Saints, finished a season holding the Lombardi trophy.
Does that history offer any hints for how 2018 might end?
2018: 2009 redux, or perhaps 2011?
While 2018 has seen a new low for defensive effectiveness, with no unit holding opponents to fewer than 18 ppg. thus far, it has also seen a new standard for offensive potency. The Saints, Chiefs, and Rams all are averaging more than 35 ppg. at this point. If they can sustain those averages through the season, they will match the combined 35.0 ppg. seasons from 2000 to 2017. What’s more, three more teams, the Steelers, Colts, and Bears, are this close to reaching the 30.0 points per game average. Six teams would shatter the number of 30 points offenses in a season since 2000, which stands at three.
As I’ve noted, top scoring offenses rarely win the Super Bowl. It’s happened just once since 2000. This year, however, there may not be a top caliber defense lurking to stop these three powerhouses.
If you’re not a fan of shootouts, take some heart in the 2011 season. That was the only other time this century that three teams, the Packers, Saints, and Patriots, topped 30. On the flip side of the playoff field were the last two elite defenses to play a full season in the 2000s, the Steelers and the 49ers.
Would an elite offense prevail, or an elite defense?
In the end, the answer was neither. The 9-7 Giants, the scrubbiest champion of the Super Bowl era (9th in scoring offense, 25th in scoring defense, allowing a whopping 400 points that year) caught fire for a month and stole a title.
Offensive and defensive trends can suggest final results, but in the end, the teams have to play the games.
History remains to be written. If your team can get into the playoffs, they’ll have a chance, no matter what the numbers may say.