After getting gashed by Cleveland for nearly 500 yards and six touchdowns and still coming out on top in a high-scoring, back-and-forth thriller, Baltimore star linebacker Matthew Judon summed it up well.
“That’s how football is, man,” he said after the Ravens won 47-42 on Dec. 14. “You leave enough time (against) a good offense, and they go right back and score.”
That’s NFL football in 2020, where no lead is safe, no point total high enough and offensive records are getting shattered weekly in what’s on pace to be the most prolific scoring season in a century of pro football.
The reasons for the scoring spree are numerous. The virtual offseason made building defensive cohesion more difficult. The lack of fans in the stands made life easier on road quarterbacks. Rule changes that seemed to de-emphasize offensive holding, while cracking down on defensive pass interference only made scoring easier. Analytics friendly coaches were more aggressive than ever on fourth downs, creating short fields for defenses that managed to make a stop or gave offenses an extra chance at success.
It has all added up to teams averaging 24.7 points per game heading into Week 17, more than a point higher than the previous NFL record of 23.4 set in 2013 and even slightly ahead of the highest-scoring season in the wide-open AFL (24.5 ppg in 1961).
While all those factors conspired against defenses, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr prefers to look at it a different way.
“I think we can all agree there’s been a lot of good quarterback play this season,” he said. “You go around, you look at a lot of teams, you look at a lot of guys and you’re like, wow, a lot of these teams that are scoring, well they have a quarterback that has been in the system a while or someone that’s there guy or a young guy that’s playing well, whatever it is. I think we’re seeing more of that.”
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While a quarterback crediting his fellow passers for the runaway scores may seem predictable, there is more than a bit of truth to the theory.
A league that struggled to find competent quarterbacks not too long ago is having a much easier time filling spots of late. With NFL teams adopting more of the spread concepts that have proliferated through the college game, rookies are more able to step right in and thrive, as evidenced by the Chargers’ Justin Herbert throwing a rookie record 28 TD passes this season.
Herbert is not alone, joined by others in the 25-and-under crowd like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray having nearly immediate success.
The increase in younger quarterbacks also means more mobile ones as the NFL has already shattered the record for QB running with 8,754 yards and 118 TDs. That’s more than 3,000 yards ahead the quarterback rushing total from 2010, the year before Cam Newton entered the NFL, and 38 TDs more than the next highest season, which was last year.
“They’ve been given opportunities to do it early in their career,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. “The old school method was to let them sit for a year and watch. I think that’s part of the reason. Secondly, a lot of these guys are very talented. They’re way further along throwing the football, understanding how to attack defenses. They do it year-round. A lot of these guys have their own private, quarterback coach. So, they’re further along, I think, in terms of training and in terms of the overall passing game nowadays as opposed to 20, 25 years ago.”
Quarterbacks are coming into the league more prepared, making it easier than ever to play young guys. Improved training and nutrition, coupled with fewer hits on quarterbacks, has helped older ones like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers stick around at a high level, giving more teams quality options.
Of the 18 teams heading into Week 17 still in the playoff race, 13 are led by QBs who entered the season either 25 or younger or 37 or older. Quarterbacks across the league have posted a 93.7 passer rating, which is on pace to top the previous record of 92.9 set in 2018 and nearly 10 points higher than the mark of 84.1 a decade ago.
Here’s a look at a few other notable facts and factors that explain the scoring spree:
— Visiting quarterbacks are posting a higher passer rating this season than home ones with scoring almost identical (24.8 ppg at home, 24.6 for road teams). Those marks are similar to last season when fans were in the stands, but from 2014-18, home teams outscored road teams by 2.3 ppg and had a passer rating 3.9 points higher.
— Teams have gone for it a record 617 times on fourth down, converting on 336 of them. That aggressiveness has led to only 1,781 punts, 378 fewer than last season with one week to go. There have been 173 TDs scored this season on drives that included a fourth-down conversion, up from 139 last year and 105 in 2017, when coach Doug Pederson’s aggressiveness helped the Eagles win the Super Bowl.
— There have been an NFL record 30 times that a team lost a game despite scoring at least 30 points, up from 16 all of last season. Many of those have happened in epic rallies. The 42 double-digit comebacks are the most through Week 16, and the nine times a team has won after trailing by at least 17 points is two shy of a record.
— There have been 5.89 penalties per game against the offense, a drop of more than one per game from the previous low mark since 2000 of 6.95 in 2001. There have been nearly 300 fewer offensive holding penalties this season, while pass interference flags are up slightly.