Two weeks into the NFL season, the offensive numbers are staggering. Scoring is up. Quarterbacks are dominating. Defenses don’t seem to have a chance, with their attempts to do anything about it often greeted by penalty flags.
It is, for the most part, how the NFL wants it. The sport’s caretakers always have favored offense on the premise that fans want to see scoring. That is particularly true now as the league tries to provide an appealing on-field product at a time when it has been beset by sagging TV ratings and a variety of controversies.
The question at some point may become: Has the NFL gone too far to tilt the competitive balance toward offenses and, in particular, quarterbacks? But nobody appears ready to make any declarations about that quite yet. For now, it’s simply all about marveling over the offensive eruption.
“I think it’s way too early to draw any conclusions,” said Bill Polian, the Hall of Fame former front office executive for the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts. “It’s not alarming to me yet. Check back with me after Week 6.”
The 174 touchdowns scored so far are the most in NFL history through the first two weeks of a season. The 1,506 points scored are the second-most ever through Week 2. Quarterbacks have posted the most completions (with 1,516) and the most touchdown passes (114) ever through two weeks of a season, with the highest completion percentage (65.3) and passer rating (92.6).
There have been six 400-yard passing games by NFL quarterbacks, tied for the most ever through two weeks of a season. In Week 2, quarterbacks had 65 touchdown passes, tied for the most in any week of any season in history, and their 8,385 net passing yards were the second-most ever in any week of play. The 17 quarterbacks who had a passer rating of at least 100 and the six who completed at least 80 percent of their passes in Week 2 were the most ever in any week of NFL play.
Why is it happening? Experts cite a confluence of factors.
There is a new wave of young, innovative head coaches around the league. Sean McVay turned Jared Goff into a franchise quarterback and got the Los Angeles Rams into the playoffs last season, and now Matt Nagy is attempting to do the same with quarterback Mitch Trubisky and the Chicago Bears. Coaches are incorporating offensive concepts that have trickled upward from the wide-open college game. Defenses still are searching for answers for the run-pass options that helped the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl triumph last season.
It also appears to be a time of transcendent quarterbacking, when young stars such as Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Houston’s Deshaun Watson begin to make their mark while established greats such as New England’s Tom Brady, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees of New Orleans remain capable of on-field magic.
It was the rare offseason in which there were enough quarterbacks to go around. The Chiefs traded Alex Smith to Washington after deciding to go with Mahomes. Kirk Cousins left the Redskins via free agency to sign with the Minnesota Vikings and replace Case Keenum, who signed with the Denver Broncos. Tyrod Taylor landed in Cleveland and Sam Bradford in Arizona. Few, if any, quarterback-needy teams were left wanting entirely. Four quarterbacks were taken in the top 10 of the NFL draft and two, the New York Jets’ Sam Darnold and Buffalo’s Josh Allen, are starting.
“Usually there are teams out there that didn’t have a good solution,” former NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck said. “Usually it’s easier to get worse than to get better.”
Good fortune is involved. Many expected Mahomes to thrive under the tutelage of Chiefs Coach Andy Reid; few anticipated that he would have 10 touchdown passes and zero interceptions in two games. Ryan Fitzpatrick, the fill-in starter for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with Jameis Winston serving a three-game suspension by the NFL, has thrown for 819 yards and eight touchdowns.
NFL rulemakers have set up quarterbacks and offenses for success. The league’s directive to officials to be particularly vigilant about protecting quarterbacks has drawn the ire of defensive players and many fans. More than twice as many roughing-the-passer penalties have been called in the first two weeks of this season as during the same span last year.
The Vikings’ tying touchdown and two-point conversion late in regulation Sunday in Green Bay came after an interception thrown by Cousins was negated by a controversial roughing-the-passer call on Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. Instead of a 29-21 Green Bay victory, the game ended in a 29-29 tie.
“People talk about the Clay Matthews play, and no player in the league would tell you that’s a penalty,” Hasselbeck said. “But the league doesn’t care. The league needs the star quarterbacks playing.”
The league’s competition committee told officials to penalize a hit this season on which a defender lands on a quarterback with most or all of his body weight after Rodgers was injured on such a hit last season. It was part of an injury-marred 2017 season in which fellow standout quarterbacks Watson and Carson Wentz of Philadelphia suffered season-ending knee injuries. The Colts’ Andrew Luck didn’t play all season following shoulder surgery.
NFL teams averaged 21.7 points per game last season, down from 22.7 points per game during the 2016 season. This season, teams are averaging 23.5 points per game. Rule changes made for safety reasons can have competitive implications.
“The rules are certainly set up for the offense to score,” Hasselbeck said. “Hitting the quarterback is being impacted. Hitting receivers is being impacted.”
Officials also are failing to penalize offensive linemen for being illegally down the field on passes thrown on run-pass options, according to Hasselbeck, citing a touchdown thrown Monday night by Seattle’s Russell Wilson that should have been negated but wasn’t.
“The RPOs are not being officiated properly, and the offenses are benefiting,” Hasselbeck said. “Everyone says, ‘How do you stop these RPOs?’ The first step is to officiate them properly.”
These aren’t new issues. Complaints by defensive players and fans about safety-related rule changes have been made often over the years. There have been similar gripes about hard hits and defense being legislated out of the sport. There have been other offensive innovations to which defenses eventually have adjusted. The league is taking a wait-and-see approach to the offensive exploits. One person familiar with the NFL’s inner workings said it’s “too early to draw any conclusions.”
There undoubtedly are significant injuries to key players to come. There will be bad-weather games in which scoring could be tougher. Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Redskins and Texans, said he believes that defenses are hurt even more than offenses by the restrictions on practice time and practice-field hitting in today’s game and will catch up to some degree as the season progresses.
“It’s too early to make anything of it,” Casserly said. “I do think the lack of practice and play time hurts the defense more. Certain matchups are maybe part of it, too.”
So perhaps it is too soon to conclude that this undoubtedly will be a season for the ages for NFL quarterbacks and offenses. But it’s not too soon to entertain the possibility.