Last year, NFL games averaged 46.8 points per game, the most in the history of the league, surpassing the 46.4 points scored per game in 1948. Four of the eleven highest scoring seasons, by per-game averages, have occurred in the last four years.
Peyton Manning shattered the league record for touchdown passes in a season, with 55, surpassing Tom Brady’s mark of 50 touchdowns from 2007 easily. It all started with 7 touchdowns in the season opener against Baltimore. It ended, though, with one second half touchdown in the Super Bowl, in a 43-8 rout by the Seattle Seahawks. Seattle’s defense had a reputation for “holding on every play”, something that I examined before the Super Bowl. As I noted in that piece, Seattle did not hold or obstruct a receiver on anywhere close to every play, and some of the contact is questionable (i.e., it could easily be seen as initiated by the offense, and called offensive pass interference.)
Well, the league has decided that it wants illegal contact called tighter now, and it has been a point of emphasis in the preseason.
Illegal contact penalties called in 2013 NFL regular season: 54. Illegal contact penalties in first two weeks of 2014 preseason: 56.
— Jeff Duncan (@JeffDuncan_) August 19, 2014
The overall penalties have gone up. I’ve seen plenty of references to the penalties in the preseason compared to the regular season. The best point of comparison, though, is the same week of the preseason. Penalties are going to be a little higher in the preseason because of sloppiness, lots of players playing and interchanging with multiple teammates.
In week 2 of the preseason last year, teams averaged 7.7 penalties and 65.1 yards. This year, it was 10.4 penalties and 86.3 yards. If we assume that teams are no sloppier now than the previous year, that increase reflects the emphasis on calling contact in the passing game.
Here was the breakdown of week 1 this year, from Behind the Steel Curtain:
“In the first week of preseason there were 51 defensive holds, 24 illegal contacts, 11 offensive pass interference and 30 illegal hands to the face penalties called in 16 games. For a point of reference, there were 37 accepted illegal contact penalties in the entirety of the 2013 season”
While we can’t compare the flat numbers, we can compare the ratios to what was called last year. (My numbers reflect those that were “no plays” because of penalty, including offsetting and where one penalty was accepted instead of another that was called).
- Illegal Contact: 40
- Offensive Pass Interference: 65
- Defensive Holding 150
So while there were 11 OPI’s in week one, the ratio of offensive pass interference to defensive holding or illegal contact was a further shift to the offense. It was 3 to 1 last year, and 7 to 1 in the first week. Do we really think the league is going to crack down on the offense in the regular season, calling more flags AND reducing points? No, quarterbacks like Manning will be dancing.
And points is where you will see the increased emphasis, as those sacks and incompletions on third down become first downs instead. It’s hard to imagine that the passing numbers could exceed last year, but if the league cracks down harder on illegal contact than OPI (or worse yet, the offense can initiate contact downfield and get a penalty called because of the emphasis), then I’m not sure why teams would bother running.
In preseason week 2 last year, the games averaged 38.9 points. This year, 47.5 points a game. That kind of shows how the emphasis has impacted scoring, and remember, that’s with many of the snaps going to backups on offense.
The last time the league cracked down on illegal contact, after the 2003 postseason when Manning’s Colts lost to the Patriots, the scoring went up by nearly a point. This graphic from the Washington Post shows the trends in how it has been called. That 2004 season, when illegal contact was a point of emphasis, saw Manning set the then-TD record of 49.
Who knows what will happen this time? My guess is on even more points, longer games, and a continuing chasm between the haves and have-nots in the passing game. People complain about flags, but will the complaints continue when the points come with it?