What’s the most likely explanation? It probably isn’t the weather or defensive rust, because the early weeks of a season don’t typically lead to such an initial outburst of scoring. Last year, NFL teams averaged 22.3 points per game during the first three weeks of the season and 22.9 points per game over the rest of the regular season. From 2002 to 2019, the league scored 21.7 points per game in Weeks 1 to 3 and 20.6 points per game over the rest of the regular season.
Other potential explanations, such as defenses having less time to game-plan for opponents because of the pandemic, also don’t hold up to scrutiny. Over the past 19 seasons, teams averaged the same rate of per-game scoring on Sundays (21.7) as they did on Thursdays, when they have less time to prepare. Monday night games saw a nearly identical scoring rate (21.6 points per game).
So what’s causing the scoring boom now? The most glaring explanation is a lack of offensive penalties.
Officials had called 237 offensive penalties in 2020 before Thursday night’s game, 30 fewer than at the same point last season and the lowest total through three weeks since 2002, when the league expanded to 32 teams. A steep decline in offensive holding penalties especially jumps out. Officials had called only 95 offensive holding penalties in 2020 entering Week 4 (including declined and offsetting calls), a huge decrease from the 234 offensive holding penalties that were called during the first three weeks of 2019.
The effects of a penalty (or lack thereof) are massive, significantly hurting or boosting a team’s ability to gain a first down. Since 2002, NFL offenses have gained a first down on slightly more than one-quarter of their plays from scrimmage (28 percent). If the previous play included an offensive penalty, that drops to less than 14 percent.
More first downs mean more sustained drives, allowing teams to average 2.4 points per drive this season when they are flagged for zero offensive penalties. That figure drops to 1.9 points per drive when offenses get whistled for one or more penalties on a drive, roughly the difference between how the 3-0 Tennessee Titans’ and 0-3 Houston Texans’ offenses are performing in 2020.
Defensive penalties, meanwhile, are being called at the fourth-highest rate over the past 19 seasons. Defensive pass interference calls alone have jumped from 50 during the first three weeks of 2019 to 72 in 2020. That, too, helps explain the recent surge in scoring. If a defense takes one or more penalties and the opposing offense takes none, the scoring rate balloons to nearly four points per drive.
A drop in offensive holding calls combined with an uptick in defensive pass interference flags certainly helps explain why the league’s passing game is on another level this season. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson became the fifth player in league history to throw at least five touchdown passes in back-to-back games, and he set a record with 14 touchdown passes through three games. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott became the second quarterback in league history with back-to-back games throwing for at least 450 yards. Quarterbacks as a whole have combined to produce a 96.3 passer rating in 2020, which, if sustained, would be yet another all-time high.
NFL teams are scoring almost six more points per game than traditionally expected based on the down, distance and field position of each throw, a significant jump from last year (4.2 more points per game than expected) and the highest scoring efficiency on passing plays since 2002.
Don’t expect this to change anytime soon. Walt Anderson, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating training and development, told NFL.com there was a concerted effort to focus officiating on “clear and obvious” infractions in 2020.
“When we were preparing, certainly going in, we had a theme of ‘clear and obvious,’ and we wanted that to continue throughout the year,” Anderson said. “We had to address clear and obvious. You can’t miss clear and obvious, and it starts with that. Going forward, we don’t want all of a sudden to start calling the ticky-tack stuff. We want things that are clear.”
The results are certainly clear: More points and fewer flags have NFL offenses dazzling fans at a whole new level.