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On yesterday’s episode of Green and Gold Forever, we discussed this comment that longtime listener Cory Bhend had posted on our Facebook page:

"Scoring is noticeably down in week 1: Teams averaged 19.3 points through Sunday night's game, down a full 3.5 points per team from last year. Will this continue? Are offenses rusty? Are defenses improving? Or is it just a fluke?"

In the episode, we speculated that it was a combination of rusty offenses due to lack of preseason reps and defenses being ahead of the offense at this stage of the season do to requiring less precision to be at their midseason form. But mostly, we dismissed it as probably being a fluke. However, I wrongly interpreted Cory’s stats to mean scoring this week was down from last years’ season average for points per team. Cory clarified today on the Facebook page that he was making a comparison to last year’s Week 1 average:

"On the issue of week 1 scoring: the final number this week was 20.2 points per team. That's down a full 10 percent from a year ago, when teams combined to score 718 points in week 1, an average of 22.4 per team. That was less than half a point off the final season average, 22.8. In 2015, teams averaged 22.6 points in week 1 and 22.8 for the season.

The idea that scoring would be down in week 1 because defense is easier to play early in the season doesn't seem to hold up against that data unless teams are holding offensive starters (and not defensive starters) out of preseason significantly more than they were even the last two years. I admittedly have no data on that. I will be interested to see if the scoring reduction we saw this weekend becomes a trend, though."

 

Now that I more clearly understand the comparison Cory was making, I wanted to look at how opening week scoring in 2017 stacked up to recent years. Cory is right, it is WAY down:

Year Avg Week 1 Pts Scored
2011 23.5
2012 24.7
2013 23.2
2014 22.4
2015 22.6
2016 22.4
2017 20.2

 

I only went back to 2011, because that is when the modern collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the NFL Players Association was signed. That is when current training camp rules went into effect. The 2011 CBA eliminated two-a-day practices, greatly reduced the number of padded practices, and restricted the amount of contact you can have in those practices. The fact that under the same rules, 2017 Week 1 scoring is down so much makes this even more intriguing. Let’s more closely examine the explanations Cory proposed.

 

1. Offenses are Rusty

You don’t need any statistics to have noticed that there was some pretty sorry quarterback play in Week 1. From Andy Dalton’s four-interception game in a 20-0 home loss to Scott Tolzien throwing two pick-sixes, nothing came easy through the air. Even the great Tom Brady looked pretty bad. The stats back up what we saw. By a wide margin, quarterbacks who played in Week 1 combined to have the worst league-wide passer rating since the new CBA went into effect:

Year Avg Week 1 Passer Rating
2011 92.6
2012 89.9
2013 91.8
2014 90.8
2015 91.1
2016 91.6
2017 86.1

*Minimum 12 Pass Attempts

 

Could rust be causing this? One of the things we have been discussing for years now on the podcast is how little quarterbacks, particularly star quarterbacks, play in the preseason nowadays. It seems the risk of injury is too great for most coaches and they opt to get their quarterbacks ready almost exclusively using practice reps. Is this a perceived trend or is this real? Turns out, 2017 Week 1 starting quarterbacks threw nearly 35% fewer preseason pass attempts than their counterparts did in 2011:

Year Starting QB Avg Preseason Pass Attempts
2011 41.5
2012 43.4
2013 36.2
2014 36.8
2015 31.0
2016 31.6
2017 28.4

 

The figures above show the average number of pass attempts over the entire course of the preseason for quarterbacks who saw significant playing time in week one of a given year. I can understand why this is happening. A coach can immediately get himself on the hot seat if his star quarterback is injured in a meaningless game when it could have been prevented. And one could argue that an extra series or two worth of throws shouldn’t have that great of an impact on Week 1 performance. But the NFL is now a passing league. Offenses need more precise timing than ever before to be effective. With the modern CBA, the game situations in which that precision will be necessary are nearly impossible to simulate outside of actual games. It’s no surprise that quarterbacks that averaged 32.4 pass attempts in their Week 1 starts would be a little rusty with just 28.4 game snaps in a month of preseason action.

 

2. Are Defenses Improving?

Of the reasons we’ll discuss, this is the one that I most hope to be true. I do not long for the days of unchecked helmet to helmet hits or people being slammed onto the old rock-hard Astroturf. I’m all for player safety. I do however long for the days when offenses and defenses felt more balanced. The NFL has made all of their rules changes in the last decade with the mindset that the deep pass is the only exciting play in football. I would argue that few plays are more exciting than a big return after an interception or fumble. I want more opportunities for the defense to force game-changing mistakes rather than passively waiting for the quarterback to make one.

 

With all that said, how do we measure if defenses are improving after one week? You really can’t, but it would be an encouraging sign if impact defensive plays were up. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case. Here is a summary of all "impact" defensive plays that occurred league-wide in each opening weekend since 2011:

Year Sacks Turnovers Def TDs
2011 88 49 4
2012 72 51 7
2013 66 53 5
2014 64 45 3
2015 65 48 7
2016 66 28 2
2017 77 41 7

 

While Week 1 defenses performed much better this year than last year, there is little statistically to suggest that defenses were more disruptive than normal this year. Offenses might have contributed just as much to their own struggles as defenses did. It seems like more of a case of offenses suffering death by a thousand incomplete passes.

 

3. Is it Just a Fluke?

Whenever dealing with a sample size of one week, this is almost always the correct answer. It is safe to say that scoring was down in Week 1 because quarterback performance was down in Week 1. But will that last? How close did recent Week Ones resemble the rest of those respective seasons?:

Year Week 1 Ave Passer Rating Year Avg Passer Rating Diff +/-(Season - Wk 1) Week 1 Average Pts Per Game Year Avg Pts Per Game Diff +/-(Season - Wk 1)
2011 92.6 84.2 -8.4 23.5 22.2 -1.3
2012 89.9 83.9 -6.0 24.7 24.7 0
2013 91.8 85.8 -6.0 23.2 23.4 +0.2
2014 90.8 88.9 -1.9 22.4 22.6 +0.2
2015 91.1 88.9 -2.2 22.6 22.8 +0.2
2016 91.6 88.7 -2.9 22.4 22.8 +0.4
2017 86.1 ?? ?? 20.2 ?? ??

 

Admittedly, I don’t take a ton of stock in this data, but if 2017 trends the way the prior 6 years have, we might have one sorry football season on our hands. The last five years, scoring in Week 1 was within a half of a point of its eventual season average. More alarming, quarterback performance went significantly down as each season progressed. That isn’t all that surprising, as teams have less time to prepare for their subsequent opponents, defenses adjust, weather gets poor in many cities, and several teams will be forced to start backup quarterbacks due to injury. A decline is to be expected. But if our QB starting point is what we saw Sunday, we are in for some colossal stinkers come November and December.

 

What does this all mean?

Beats me. All this might not mean anything in the long run, but perhaps this shows that the quality of play is very dependent on good quarterbacking. The rules are designed for them to succeed. But what if we have a crop of quarterbacks that are less capable of succeeding, even under the best of circumstances? Perhaps the NFL Rules Committee should stop making tweaks with Peyton Manning in mind and watch a few more Andy Dalton games. Perhaps then they’ll realize the key to an exciting product is allowing all players on the field a fair chance at creating an exciting play.  

 

Eric Drews 
Host 
Green and Gold Forever 
@GreenGold4Ever

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