NEW YORK — Things have been almost too easy this season for NFL quarterbacks and the offenses they lead. The sport’s offensive numbers are staggering, to the point that defensive players have said the NFL’s rulemakers have tilted the competitive balance too heavily in favor of offenses and that something must be done to even things out.
Good luck with that.
What those beleaguered defensive players need to understand is that in the NFL’s world view, there is simply no such thing as too much offense.
It is an NFL season in which quarterbacks both young and old are thriving. Mainstays such as New England’s Tom Brady, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees of New Orleans remain productive while newcomers such as Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff in Los Angeles have become MVP candidates. The 4,489 points, 504 touchdowns and 328 touchdown passes recorded leaguewide thus far are the most ever, in each case, through six weeks of an NFL season.
Meanwhile, the NFL’s TV ratings are in recovery mode. Television viewership has been on the upswing after a couple of years of sagging ratings. The latest evidence came when viewership of Monday night’s entertaining Packers-49ers game on ESPN was up 40 percent from the network’s Week 6 “Monday Night Football” telecast last year.
Why would the NFL tweak anything? Times are good. The controversy over the sport’s national anthem policy has subsided, with few players protesting during the anthem. The games have been captivating to fans. The NFL always has believed that viewers like scoring. That is playing out this season. Defensive players and coaches are on their own.
“Defensive coaches are very good at what they do,” Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, the chairman of the NFL’s rulemaking competition committee, said at this week’s owners’ meeting in New York. “And as schemes adjust, they adjust. The Cover-2 becomes Cover-3. Cover-3 becomes Cover-4. They do really smart things and adjust …. Whenever you see a spike one way or the other, I think you will see a period of adjustment.”
It was only a year ago that scoring was down, onlookers were bemoaning the quality of play and talent evaluators were talking about how college football was not properly preparing quarterbacks and offensive linemen for the NFL game. Now, the wide-open NFL game looks quite a bit like the wide-open college game, as offensive schemes and ideas have trickled upward to the pro level.
“I think the young quarterbacks and the way the young quarterbacks have played is different than the way we’re used to seeing it,” McKay said. “There are so many of them playing at such a high level …. As a league — we hear it said all the time — ‘Well, quarterbacks aren’t getting prepared well enough in college.’ I don’t know about that. They seem to be coming in and playing at a pretty high level. Or, ‘The offensive linemen aren’t ready to pass-protect.’ Well, they seem to be doing okay. So I think it surprised me by how quickly it bounced back.”
Defensive players contend that offenses have rebounded so quickly in large part because of rule modifications. There was a flag-fest of roughing-the-passer penalties in the season’s first three weeks before the competition committee intervened. That came after the committee originally instructed referees this season to stringently enforce the existing prohibition on a defender landing on a quarterback on a hit.
“I think they just sometimes lack common sense,” Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, speaking about the rules safeguarding quarterbacks, said after a recent game that included a controversial roughing-the-passer call on teammate Michael Bennett. “I get it. We want to protect quarterbacks, and I completely understand that. They’re the lifeblood to our game. But it’s really hard to do your job, and it’s having an effect on some games.”
Defensive players might be focusing on the wrong rule. The bigger issue might be the enforcement of illegal contact by defenders in the secondary against receivers. There have been 36 defensive illegal contact calls, up from 11 at the same point last season. A similar officiating crackdown on clutching-and-grabbing tactics by defensive backs produced an offensive explosion in the NFL in the early 2000s.
“In our mind, the competition committee’s minds, there’s always been a link between illegal contact [and] defensive holding in the secondary and passing yards, because as defenses get more aggressive and grab more … then the yards tend to go down,” McKay said.
There have been fewer roughing-the-passer calls in recent weeks, following the competition committee’s intervention. But the NFL isn’t going to stop safeguarding quarterbacks, or do much to help defenses, now or in the future.
“I think it’ll normalize itself as we go through the progression of the season,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, said this week at the owners’ meeting. “I do believe that some of the defenses — there are some great coordinators. They will adjust. I think as we start getting into that real playoff run, we’ll start seeing the points normalize itself.”
Maybe that was Vincent’s background as a former NFL defensive back showing.
“As players, you’re adjusting all the time,” Vincent said. “You just need game footage to see what people can and can’t do in certain situations. The weather will be changing here. Can you fling the ball around when it’s 25 degrees, it’s snowy, it’s rainy? But the players and coordinators will adjust … as the season progresses.”
Or maybe the passing yards and the points will continue to pile up at record rates. Which would not bother the NFL in the least.
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