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Threat of Suspensions Not Responsible For Increased Scoring in the NFL Last Weekend

You are going to hear plenty this week about how this was the second highest scoring week in the last 20 years (true) and, then, people are going to make the quick leap that there must be some causal connection between last week’s suspension talk for helmet hits, and the increase in scoring. I’m here to tell you that such a connection likely does not exist at this point. 

It’s true that this was a high scoring week. The trick, though, is identifying why that was. First, let’s take a look at the combined passing numbers for all games this weekend. If we are going to see some effect, we should see it on the per-play passing level, where defenders are more tentative in defending a pass or knocking down a receiver coming across the middle. Here are the numbers for this week:

581 for 986 (59.5% completions), 6842 passing yards (7.01 yards per attempt), 51 td’s, 32 int’s.

Of course, we need to compare that to the rest of the season, before the suspension talk. When we do, we see that the completion percentage this week was slightly down (61.2% previously) and yards per attempt were virtually identical to the rest of the season (7.00 yards per attempt). The only passing statistic that saw a positive increase was touchdown percentage, but since yards per attempt was virtually identical to the season average, that must just be because of more red zone opportunities. Interception percentage was also up, which is an argument against an effect hurting the defense.

If the increase in scoring wasn’t because of more breakdowns in the passing defense, what was it? More likely, the culprit was turnovers and luck. There were 65 total turnovers this weekend, and that rate per team (2.3 turnovers per team) is over half a turnover higher than the season average. That is 14 more turnovers than an average week. Turnovers are positively correlated with scoring, and are also highly variant in their impact on scoring. As Jason LaCanfora tweeted, this weekend set the record for most interception return touchdowns (9) in a single weekend in NFL history, when Favre threw his pick six on Sunday night. Add in the two other non-offensive touchdowns this weekend, and we have 5.5 points per game added based on non-offensive touchdowns. That’s a lot.

I don’t know if the threat of suspensions will have any systematic tangible effect on the field as we progress. What I do know is that anyone can cherry pick highlights or point to the increased scoring without investigating further. So far, I’m skeptical, particularly when it appears that the increased scoring for this week may be more an effect of a high turnover weekend (and Denver forgetting how to tackle Darren McFadden). I fail to see how increased turnovers is evidence of some chilling effect based on the threat of suspension; in fact, it would seem to hurt such an argument.

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