We are around the midway point of the 2017 NFL season and while the league has started rounding into shape, there still seems to be some concern about that state of offense around the league. Anecdotally, the NFL has seemed generally less fun to watch this season. While people have placed the blame for this on Roger Goodell being a moron, the league’s continued flamingo stance on concussions and CTE, the overall discussion of violence and/or a wide swath of players kneeling in protest and the Cheetos president’s response to the same, the reality is that the gift of “parity” across the league has actually made it less fun to watch. That parity might also just be the manifestation of bad offensive line play across the league. But let’s examine the two main reasons I think the league is suffering – a lack of truly dominant teams and the decline in offense due to bad O-line play.
Lack of Dominant Teams
First things first, we need to face facts. As much as the NFL likes to talk about parity and it being good for the league, we love the idea of underdogs and dominant teams. The league is most fun when we watched New England chase 16-0 and then 19-0 in 2007 (spoiler alert, they lost in the Super Bowl and went 18-1).
Likewise, we love to watch underdog teams who consistently claw their way to victories – think the Cardiac Cats in 2003. That Panthers team went 11-5 with seven of their regular season victories being by 3 points or less. Fun times. And if we are being honest, we love trainwrecks.
Circumstances like that make football fun to watch. The challenge with the league for the early part of this season is that there wasn’t a clear delineation of dominant teams and basement dwellers. Up until about week 6 everyone was pretty much within arms length of first place in their division. There was also the issue of no unbeaten teams after week 5. Here’s a list of the last unbeaten teams over the last decade and when they lost their first game (*I’m using the game that they lost instead of the week because I am too lazy to account for bye weeks):
2017 – Kansas City Chiefs – lost game 6
2016 – Minnesota Vikings – lost game 6
2015 – Carolina Panthers – lost game 15
2014 – Eagles/Bengals/Cardinals – lost game 4
2013 – Kansas City Chiefs – lost game 10
2012 – Atlanta Falcons – lost game 9
2011 – Green Bay Packers – lost game 14
2010 – Bears/Steelers/Chiefs – Lost game 4
2009 – Indianapolis Colts – Lost game 5
2008 – Tennessee Titans – lost game 11
There are a couple of things that stand out here. First, other than 2016, 2014 and 2010, the last unbeaten team has never lost as early as week 6. If you go back another 10 years, there has been only one additional season where the last unbeaten went down in Week 5 or earlier. The average game of the season that the last team has lost in the last 20 seasons is game 9. If you eliminate the seasons in which the team went out in week 5 or earlier the game of the season that the last team has lost is game 11. Now you may say I’m playing with numbers, but the truth is in the last two seasons where the Chiefs and Vikings (not necessarily two perennial powerhouses) have been the last unbeaten team and that they each lost their first game in game 6 does lend to the discussion about why the league hasn’t been as fun to watch.
As I mentioned at the start though, the league is somewhat rounding into shape. We have a potentially dominant team in Philadelphia. We have the AFC standard bearers of New England and Pittsburgh appearing to round into form. But there are challenges even with those teams. New England’s defense has been sketchy to say the least. Pittsburgh’s QB Ben Roethlisberger has openly questioned if he still has “it” (one Steelers fan I know said that this is Ben’s annual statement of doubt to throw people off the team’s scent before pulling off a string of victories). Philly, while admittedly fun to watch and imagine as a legit Super Bowl contender, is probably one or two wins short of making their true claim to the number one spot in the league thus far. Beyond those teams we have Kansas City, the season’s last unbeaten team to fall, in the midst of a 1-3 stretch. We have Seattle playing their annual game of slow start with the mid to end of season catch-up (hopefully without the Wilson injury this time) – and a host of other would be contending teams that are either too new to the winning party to be given legitimacy, too obviously unbalanced in some way to be taken seriously, or in such a crappy division that we can’t even with them (looking at you AFC South, RIP Deshaun Watson’s 2017 season). But more and more it feels like half the league is basically waiting for the other shoe to drop. So yea, not a lot of fun to be found around the NFL. But let’s get to the real problem…
Where’s the O?
One of the other reasons for lack of interest is the lack of offense.
2017 Stats (Through Week 9)
Avg. Passing Yards per game – 227.2
Avg. Rushing Yards per game – 108.1
Avg. Yards per game – 335.4
Avg. Points per game – 22.0
Percentage of drives ending in offensive score – 34.3%
Avg. Passing Yards per game – 241.5
Avg. Rushing Yards per game – 108.9
Avg. Yards per game – 350.4
Avg. Points per game – 22.8
Percentage of drives ending in offensive score – 35.6%
As it stands the league is slightly behind last year’s pace and just slightly off of the pace set in most of the last five years for offensive numbers. Just around the midpoint of this NFL season teams are averaging 20 yards less per game in the passing game and 15 yards less per game overall. The most significant difference is the almost 1 point per game per team less that is being scored. That means that on average each team is scoring 12.8 less points per season. Over the course of the season we are losing roughly 409.6 points (12.8 points less per team for the season multiplied by 32 teams). That means that over the course of the season (if these numbers remain as is and if we assumer that scoring drives are equally likely to end in a touchdown or field goal) we will miss out on roughly 30 TDs and 68 FGs. That’s a whole lot of scoring drives my friend. So if those numbers make sense, offense is down this season.
The scary part is that these numbers may be skewed high because of the amount of games where at least one team has scored 35 or more. We have had a number of 40 and 50 plus games so far this season that may actually be skewing the totals higher. Sadly that means if any of this starts to balance out over the back end of the season, those numbers could turn out to be worse.
But why has offense been down?
It Starts at the Line
The most intelligent discussion around the league that I have heard is that offensive line play is down. There are tangible reasons to believe that.
2017 Stats (Projected)
Avg Sacks – 6.6% of pass attempts
Avg Sack Total – 40 per team
QB Hits – 93 per team
Tackles for Loss – 39 per team
Avg Sacks – 5.8% of pass attempts
Avg Sack Total – 35 per team
QB Hits – 86 per team
Tackles for Loss – 32 per team
Differential (From 2016 to 2017)
Avg Sacks: +.08% of pass attempts
Avg Sack Total: +5 per team
QB Hits: +7 per team
Tackles for Loss: +7 per team
So you may say, “Well Alex, maybe defenses are just better all around.” Unfortunately for the offensive lines, defensive stats across the rest of the board are fairly similar year to year. Interceptions are on pace to be just around the same from a total and percentage standpoint. Then you look at the average QB Rating and so far the league is on pace to post a 1 point smaller QB rating. This is after 10 years of fairly steady growth in average QB rating per year. Offensive Line penalties are on pace to be about the same, but penalties against the offense is currently on pace to increase by about 160 total leaguewide which equates to roughly 5 more penalties called against each team’s offense over the course of the season.
Each individual statistic on its own may not seem like the end of the world, but when you look at the combined effect of the increase in QB Hits, Sacks, Tackles for Loss and Penalties against Offenses a pretty clear picture comes into focus. Offensive line play is declining league wide.
There are a few clear reasons to support that argument – but two of them that jump out. First, offensive line play differs greatly between the college and pro games – enough so that players who jump to the NFL aren’t as NFL ready as they could be. As I heard someone say it, the NCAA coaches are more inclined to prepare their players to win national championships than to prepare them for the way offense is played in the NFL. The second (and somewhat less discussed) reason is the fact that teams aren’t allowed to have the same number of practices as they used to. This reason supports the first and also explains why that first problem wasn’t as pronounced in years past. Here are the two primary rule changes in a nutshell from the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed in 2011:
Gone are the grueling two-a-day practices that have long been a staple of training camps. In their place, teams are able to conduct one full-contact padded practice per day accompanied by a walkthrough period.
The league has also placed limits on the number of full-contact padded practices during the regular season. Teams are permitted a total of 14 for the year with 11 of those practices conducted during the first 11 weeks of the season (a maximum of one per week).
As NFL writer Bucky Brooks put it at the time:
“The reduction of full-contact practices will also impact the passing game. Teams will find it challenging to refine pass protection under the current circumstances. Offenses will have limited opportunities to work against pressures in live contact blitz periods. This will lead to more miscues and blown assignments in protection, which could result in quarterbacks taking a pounding. With blockers unable to learn how to handle the speed, strength and power of attacking defenders through repetition, building up the necessary toughness to win physical confrontations could become an issue. That fortitude is only developed in pads.”
Now, think about your favorite NFL team, if they have a veteran offensive line, this issue may not present itself as much. I will be fair and discuss my on disappointing team to show how this impact can be felt. Ladies and gentlemen, the 2017 Denver Broncos – sitting at a woeful 3-5 and heading into a week 10 beatdown from the New England Patriots – are a perfect example of the how the reduction in practices and two-a-days have made building an NFL-ready offensive line difficult.
When you look at the Denver O-line you will note that there are only two of 11 linemen that have five or more years in the league. Out of the other nine, three are rookies, one has four years experience and everyone else is either in their second or third year. So, two years removed from a Super Bowl victory, with a defense that still has the potential to be historic, this Denver team has struggled and continues to struggle in protecting its stable of young QBs.
I will admit, in our case the selections at QB are definitely a part of the problem – Paxton Lynch is the young draft pick who was supposed to be the future has failed to beat out Trevor Siemian in each of the last two seasons, Siemian who has gotten banged up in both seasons behind the struggling O-line and whose ceiling we can’t be sure of even though he has showed flashes of potential, and Brock Osweiller who was the stopgap QB that stepped in for noodle-armed Peyton Manning during the Super Bowl season of 2015 but has since been on two different teams before landing back in Denver and is now starting due to Siemian’s poor play. One can even say they are a shitshow – even though I do believe Siemian might be the answer if the line was better.
You can point out that the Denver defense has slipped these past few weeks, but I can hardly blame them given what the offense has given them. I mean we are back to starting Brock Osweiller, I want to jump off a cliff too. Between our game of deathly musical chair at QB and the terrible play of our offensive line, Denver, who should really be a perennial contender because of Von Miller and the No Fly Zone, is staring down the barrel of a losing season.
All in all, there is hope on the horizon that the back half of the season will be better than the first. We have Thanksgiving games to look forward to, end of season division games to determine playoff berths and seeding, and all of the fun of the journey to the Super Bowl. In the meantime, the league office needs to start figuring out how to improve offensive line play in a hurry, because continued slow starts to a sport that only has sixteen regular season weeks and has to contend with the continued growth in the popularity of the NBA (which is also starting its seasons earlier now) has to be a concern and one that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.