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NFL Draft

Why Have NFL Offenses Had So Much Success In 2020?

  • The Draft Network
  • October 21, 2020
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In the immediate wake of the 2020 NFL Draft, Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott was asked how the lack of spring ball would affect his team. In early May, coaches and league officials knew they would endure an atypical onboarding for rookies, but still anticipated a regular training camp.

McDermott’s theory was that the passing game would be hurt on offense

“We usually spend about 70 percent of our spring trying to shape our passing game. There’s no pads on so not a lot of sense spending a whole lot of time on the run game in spring ball. In training camp it flips a little bit, starts to even out, maybe 60-40, 50-50, because you have pads on and you can work the 9-on-7 drills. That’s the biggest thing we’re missing, time on task in developing the passing game.”

Makes sense. McDermott, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, and his staff likely went about their late spring and summer thinking of ways to get the passing game installed across the course of zoom meetings, limited camp sessions, and eventually, no preseason games. For the Bills and the rest of the league, unprecedented circumstances laid a tough mountain to climb.

Through six games of the season, Bills quarterback Josh Allen has four games with an ESPN QB rating of at least 80—that’s more than he had in both 2018 and 2019. He’s on pace for career-high figures in completion percentage, has rocketed up the scoreboard in predictive accuracy metrics, and holds a competitive spot in the league MVP race. Newly-acquired wide receiver Stefon Diggs, for whom the Bills had only this truncated offseason to onboard, is third in the league in total receiving yards and top 10 in yards/route run. The Bills passing offense didn’t just hurdle the COVID-19 obstacle; it took off soaring.

And the rest of the NFL? Scoring is wildly up. Through six weeks of the season, the average NFL team is scoring more than 25 points for the first time ever, which is two total points above the next closest season (2013). With 16 games played for all 32 teams, that’s more than 1,000 additional points when the season is completed. Scoring is up because the passing game is up: the league-wide 65.5% completion percentage is a single-season high despite 2020 seeing the fourth-most passes attempted/game in history. Passing touchdown percentage is at its highest mark in the last 50 years, while interception percentage is tied with historic lows. Throwing the football has never felt so easy or looked so good.

Despite McDermott’s trepidation, the scoring outburst came with a familiar rumble. In the 2011 lockout season, coaches and analysts expected slower, sloppier games given the abridged training camp—in Week 1, quarterbacks set a then-record for passing yards in a single week. Rookies were expected to have a more gradual impact, and the 2011 rookie class was historically impactful. The rush to prepare affected NFL defenses far more than it did NFL offenses, who ended up doing what they always do: put the ball in the hands of their best players, and ask them to make plays.

2020’s limitations weren’t exactly 2011’s. In 2011, the team couldn’t host activities due to the labor lockout, but athletes could still get together and workout. In 2020, teams held meetings and installed playbooks, but nobody could get together, officially or otherwise, to put the practice on the field. Despite the differences, they both bore an exciting fruit: In 2011, offense spiked, with the passing game especially riding a rising tide; in 2020, offense is spiking again.

There are more minor differences that serve as important distinctions. Penalties did not drop in 2011 the way they have in 2020, with holding penalties particularly cratering as quarterbacks dart around and out of the pocket like never before—tackles and guards now forgiven for that extra fist of jersey that peeks into the back judge’s view. Injuries leapt in 2011, with soft tissue injuries tearing through rosters—in 2020’s adjusted COVID-19 Injured Reserve policy, it’s yet unclear just how many games and seasons have been lost due to on-field injury as compared to seasons past. With cavernous stadiums only sprinkled with animate fans among the cardboard onlookers, road teams suffer fewer miscommunications, can overhear the defenses’ checks, and use hard counts to slow bit-chomping edge rushers—2011 had no sudden silencing to endure.

The NFL’s scoring hurricane is accordingly the product of several coalescing factors; a product of a unique climate that cannot see one variable divorced and credited from the rest. This is true, in fact, of all offensive innovation. When Sean McVay’s offense exploded in 2018, it was because he combined the wisdom of wide zone teams from the 2000s with a modern commitment to pre-snap motion coupled with a dedication to play-action passing and the use of reduced splits against defenses accustomed to more traditional spread sets. Why did the offense work? Not because of any one thing, but because of how many things came together. 

Teams aren’t scoring more points just because hard counts are making third downs easier, or because they’re going for two-point conversions more than ever before, or because there are more wide receivers runs than ever before, or because holding penalties are down. They’re scoring more points because offenses attack edges: some of these edges are causes, and some are results, and some are confounding variables altogether. By the same token that unprecedented offenses insist on explanations, unprecedented league coverage offers endless explanations, and fallacies of association are far easier to make than they are to refute.

The truth of the 2011 offensive surge was that it was immediately overshadowed by the 2012 offensive surge, which had far fewer accompanying narratives, but just as much year over year improvement. Scoring jumped more from 2011 to 2012 than it did from 2010 to 2011; the passing game climbed at a consistent pace. It was only in the mid-2010s that defenses caught up to offenses, plateauing the swell on the backswing of the pendulum. After a few years of defensive stability, offenses are pulling ahead again.

Such is the convergent evolution between the predator and the prey in the NFL, and in all of football. Offenses find edges to exploit and feast until defenses grow wise to the game, wary of the tricks, smarter in their countermeasures. The volley of growth is jagged and reactive, fought on smaller fronts than a league-level perspective can examine. So we hunt for glimpses of explicable phenomena in what is otherwise far too complex a battle for an onlooker to parse.

Offense reigns in 2020, but that is not because 2020 is different—rather, it is because offenses sometimes reign. In a year like 2020, there are more edges to exploit, and in an offense-driven league with offensive-minded coaches, those edges belong to points and passes and the Red Zone channel. With 2021 there will come fewer edges, but the league will still remember the lessons learned from 2020’s unique offering, and with those battles won in hand, continue to push the record books ever higher.

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