The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inexperienced quarterbacks, porous lines are crippling scoring and crushing the NFL’s watchability

NFL teams are scoring 20.3 points per game per team, the lowest average for the first two weeks of the season since 2010. (Ed Zurga/AP)

The first two weeks of the NFL’s regular season have been, for lack of a better word, boring. Either the games were low-scoring affairs, like the combined 12 points the Buffalo Bills and Carolina Panthers managed on Sunday, or left little doubt as to the outcome, such as the Denver Broncos steamrolling the Dallas Cowboys by 25.

The average scoring output has been so puny — 20.3 points per game per team — it qualifies as the lowest average for the first two weeks of the season since 2010. Yet the average margin of victory is 12.9 points per game, the highest since 2011. With the games either low-scoring or lopsided, the NFL has been an early-season snoozefest.

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Close scores provide drama, but there’s been precious little thus far. Based on points scored and allowed per quarter, the winning team in 2017 has had an average win probability of 54 percent throughout the contest with an 83 percent win probability by game’s end. The former is the highest since 2008; the latter hasn’t been reached since 2005. In other words, there is more drama in a Mentos commercial than during this year’s NFL games.

This isn’t supposed to happen in a league that prides itself on parity. While we’re still seeing some, when we have seen it, it’s because both teams have been similarly bad offensively. We’re also starting to see a clear division between the talented offensive teams as they pull away from the pack. The driving force behind that division? Quarterback play and solid offensive line play. The teams that have strong QBs and linemen are flourishing as always, but others have lagged because of a very specific shortcoming.

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In 2017, teams are having a hard time reaching the end zone after breaking inside the 20-yard line compared to the first two weeks of action in prior seasons. The rate of drives reaching the red zone has remained steady but, as a whole, teams are scoring a touchdown on exactly half of all trips to the red zone this season, the lowest conversion rate since 2007 and a substantial drop from recent years.

Teams are rushing in the red zone more often, but close enough to the rate (once every 2.1 plays) we have seen over the past nine seasons. They’ve also had similar success (touchdowns on 14.5 percent of drives), in line with offenses before last year’s surge in rushing touchdowns inside the 20-yard line.

Passing, on the other hand, appears to be a problem.

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This season, quarterbacks are completing 51.3 percent of red-zone passes with an 11-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, both the lowest success rates over the past six years. The sack rate inside the red zone has jumped from once out of every 27 pass attempts in 2016 to one out of every 15 in 2017, the highest rate since 2005. The cause for the lack of passing effectiveness inside the 20-yard line appears to be a combination of inexperienced quarterbacks and porous offensive lines neutralizing some established veteran passers.

Quarterbacks with fewer than 60 red-zone attempts heading into this season are completing half of their passes (50.4 percent) with an above-average interception rate (2.5 percent) and a high sack rate (6.1 percent) in 2017.

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Passers with 60 or more red-zone attempts see marks of 56.6, 2.0 and 4.1 percent, respectively. Even 2016 rookie of the year Dak Prescott has struggled, completing just 5 of 13 red-zone passes this season for a 54.2 passer rating. (It’s worth noting he’s faced two of the NFL’s best defenses in the Giants and Broncos, however.)

Red-zone passing attempts from 2002 to 2016 RZ Comp% in 2017 RZ Int% in 2017 RZ Sack% in 2017
0 to 59 50.4% 2.5% 6.1%
60 or more 56.6% 2.0% 4.1%
NFL Average (2002 to 2016) 53.0% 2.3% 5.3%

Not all experienced quarterbacks are having red-zone success, though. Andy Dalton has yet to find the end zone despite the Bengals passing two-thirds of the time once they are inside the 20-yard line. The Seattle Seahawks pass 71 percent of the time in the red zone but have scored a touchdown just once in five opportunities. The common denominator between those two teams: poor offensive line play. Cincinnati’s offensive line has allowed Dalton to be pressured on 41 percent of passing plays, the second-highest rate in the NFL this season. The Seahawks’ offensive front is right behind them with a 38.5 percent pressure rate allowed. No quarterback is getting worse protection than whoever is under center for the Houston Texans — they have allowed a sack, hit or hurry on more than half of the team’s passing attempts, yielding a sack once every 10 plays. Only the Indianapolis Colts are allowing a higher sack rate overall.

Put it all together and the red zone efficiency chart through Week 2 is pretty simply explained.

Team QB RZPass% RZTD%
Lions (1-0) Matthew Stafford 40% 100%
Chiefs (2-0) Alex Smith 62% 83%
Chargers (0-2) Philip Rivers 73% 80%
Broncos (2-0) Trevor Siemian 44% 78%
Packers (1-1) Aaron Rodgers 63% 75%
Bills (1-1) Tyrod Taylor 46% 75%
Raiders (2-0) Derek Carr 62% 71%
Falcons (2-0) Matt Ryan 50% 67%
Jets (0-2) Josh McCown 86% 67%
Jaguars (1-1) Blake Bortles 28% 67%
Steelers (2-0) Ben Roethlisberger 53% 67%
Rams (1-1) Jared Goff 29% 63%
Ravens (2-0) Joe Flacco 58% 57%
Titans (1-1) Marcus Mariota 43% 57%
Vikings (1-1) Sam Bradford, Case Keenum 53% 57%
Browns (0-2) DeShone Kizer 42% 50%
Eagles (1-1) Carson Wentz 73% 50%
Bears (0-2) Mike Glennon 85% 50%
Colts (0-2) Jacoby Brissett 40% 50%
Patriots (1-1) Tom Brady 38% 46%
Buccaneers (1-0) Jameis Winston 43% 40%
Saints (0-2) Drew Brees 70% 38%
Redskins (1-1) Kirk Cousins 53% 33%
Texans (1-1) Deshaun Watson 57% 33%
Cowboys (1-1) Dak Prescott 74% 29%
Cardinals (1-1) Carson Palmer 65% 29%
Seahawks (1-1) Russell Wilson 71% 20%
Panthers (2-0) Cam Newton 43% 17%
Dolphins (1-0) Jay Cutler 64% 0%
Bengals (0-2) Andy Dalton 65% 0%
49ers (0-2) Brian Hoyer 82% 0%
Giants (0-1) Eli Manning 60% 0%

The good news is as younger quarterbacks gain experience, and the offensive lines find their rhythm, the results on the field should improve, and they should do so as early as this season.

In past seasons where the teams scored fewer than 20 per game during the first two weeks of the season, scoring improved by an average of 15 percent over the rest of the season. That would peg the league’s scoring average over the rest of the 2017 season at 23.3 points per game. The problem? While that’s an improvement, it would still qualify to be the lowest rate since 2011. If that’s the case, this could be a sleepy NFL season compared to years past.

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