The last time the Rams played at the 49ers in a prime-time game, they were shut out. This season, the 49ers have played two games and haven’t scored a touchdown. And this is after last week’s “Thursday Night Football” produced one touchdown for both teams in the Texans’ 13-9 win over Cincinnati.
Scoring is down in the NFL. That’s the latest crisis, after we moved on from Ezekiel Elliott not hustling and gave the television ratings stories a break for a day or so. According to Michael Salfino, through two weeks teams are averaging 1.93 offensive touchdowns per game. That number was 2.4 last season, and 2.36 from 2014 to 2016. Scoring as a whole is down too of course, at 20.1 points per team each game, a number that was 22.6 last season.
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After two weeks, which is not exactly a significant sample, we saw headlines such as “How Football Stopped Being Fun,” “Fantasy Scoring is Down and Will Likely Stay That Way,” “Why Scoring Has Nosedived in the NFL” and “The NFL Has A Scoring Problem – Potentially The Worst In Decades.” Two weeks.
Like the television ratings story, everyone has a theory on why scoring is down. Let’s take a look at the possible culprits:
Practice time has been cut too much: Two-a-day practices were a relic from a time when players had offseason jobs and needed to get in shape during July and August. It was probably long overdue for the union and NFL to cut back on padded contact practices, especially with so many stories about player health. Of course, less practice time has consequences. Offenses seem behind early in the season (why don’t we ever recognize that, perhaps, defenses have been really good so far?). Coaches will complain that the game is worse because of the cutbacks in practice but they’re not an unbiased source; coaches love nothing more than practice and even more practice. The one area this seems to have really had an effect is …
Offensive line play is down: “The team would be better but its offensive line is just terrible.” Who is that about? The New York Giants? Seattle Seahawks? Cincinnati Bengals? Houston Texans? Could be a number of teams. Poor offensive line play has been a few years coming (NFL Films’ Greg Cosell broke down the problems scouting offensive linemen last year, which you can read here) because it seems everyone is running a spread offense in college and offensive linemen aren’t prepared for the NFL game. Then they don’t get enough practice time to develop. Therefore, there are fewer offensive linemen to go around (this could also be a coincidental temporary downturn in the number of capable and athletic 310-pound males from 22-32 years old).
Whatever the reason, offensive linemen are in short supply and there are way too many teams who can’t function because they can’t block – again though, let’s give some credit to defensive schemes. This isn’t college football, where most teams are awful on defense and even Iowa-Iowa State was tied 38-38 at the end of regulation. Newsflash: Defenses are good in the NFL. The same people complaining about lack of scoring might have been upset that all the NFL’s rules are designed to make it tougher on defenses. It’s 2017, and people like to be unhappy about something or anything.
The short passing game has taken over: Kevin Clark of The Ringer wrote a great piece examining how the short-passing game is the go-to offense for just about every team, and that makes the game less aesthetically pleasing. The NFL has always been extremely risk averse – it will be nice to reach a point in which a team makes the obvious call to go for it on fourth-and-1 and it isn’t treated like they’re taking A Big Gamble – and that has affected how offenses are devised. Even guys like Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions and Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens, who have the ability to throw deep, have been turned into short, safe passers.
Some of this is due to the New England Patriots‘ success. They have a highly efficient offense around a short passing game. It’s a copycat league. Tom Brady is never going to post a great yards per attempt because the Patriots play a certain way. Now everyone seems to be playing that way, even if they have quarterbacks who can do more than dink and dunk.
The short-passing trend probably goes all the way back to Bill Walsh and the West Coast Offense with the 49ers, but it’s more pronounced now. The shift in strategy is also probably due to the idea that interceptions are a death knell. We all play a part in that, with constant criticism for any quarterback turnover. We can’t complain about Stafford throwing too many interceptions, then congratulate him when he plays a safer game and cuts down mistakes (his current 6.7 yards per attempt would be his lowest over a full season since his rookie season) and also beat up the NFL because everyone is playing it safe. Also, to repeat: Defenses are good. As we’ve seen, offensive linemen can’t block some of the great pass rushers in the game too long, so the counter is to get the ball out fast. And defensive coordinators aren’t going to allow deep shots.
Maybe we’re so used to seeing receivers on Saturdays running free in secondaries play after play – I get why fans like a lot of points, but it’s probably worth noting that a big part of the “fun” in college football is also due to disinterested defensive play – that we forget it’s not that easy in the NFL.
Quarterback play is bad: If I searched archives of NFL coverage in 1933, there would be someone saying that quarterback play has never been worse, because the Portsmouth Spartans, Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cardinals can’t develop anyone.
Angst about quarterback play around the league is a story as old as the NFL itself, it seems. Yes, some teams are terrible at quarterback. It would be better for guys like Russell Wilson, Andy Dalton and Eli Manning if their lines could block. It would be better if stars Andrew Luck and Cam Newton (who is playing but off to a slow start) hadn’t had shoulder surgeries. Still, we’re in an era in which guys like Aaron Rodgers, Wilson, Dak Prescott, Carson Wentz, Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Newton, Stafford, Matt Ryan and Kirk Cousins are still in their primes and youngsters like Mitchell Trubisky, Jared Goff, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and DeShone Kizer have shown promise. And next year’s draft class at quarterback is deep and exciting.
Playing quarterback is the most impossible job in sports – again, NFL defenses are good – and there are a lot of young guys doing it at an impressive level. When the old guard moves on and goes to the Hall of Fame, the league will be fine. And people will still tell us how bad quarterback play is.
Scoring is down in the NFL. There are real reasons for that. You can watch offensive line play any Sunday and recognize that’s an issue. You can watch many games on Saturdays and not see a college team running a pro-style offense, which means fewer players are coming to the NFL ready to play (this isn’t college football’s fault, by the way; its only obligation is to win games and spread offenses accomplish that). There are probably too many NFL players on rookie deals playing key roles because they’re cheap and the NFL’s salary structure from the latest CBA unwittingly drove a lot of veterans out of the game. Thursday night games, with offenses working with stripped-down game plans on a short week, have been bad for the NFL’s product.
A lack of scoring is the NFL’s latest five-alarm fire. And it’s probably not going to get better with the Rams and 49ers on Thursday night. But if there are a bunch of points this week, next week we’ll read all about how terrible defensive play in the NFL has gotten.
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