If you’ve watched the NFL this season and thought that there’s an awful lot of touchdowns being scored, you’re not wrong. Scoring is up across the NFL. Way up. Going into Week 5, teams had reached the end zone 371 times, the most through four weeks in NFL history. Teams are passing for 1.8 touchdowns per game — which would represent the highest rate in NFL history if it continues through the rest of the season. And the average NFL team is scoring 25.7 points per game, pushing the average combined point total over 50 points per game.
So what’s going on? There’s a host of possible explanations for the offensive explosion.
Some have speculated that the league has decided to de-emphasize offensive holding penalties and that the decline in penalty yardage is helping to boost scoring. It’s true that offensive holding is down so far through Week 4: Just 107 such penalties had been accepted compared with 234 in 2019, when holding was a point of emphasis for the league. And there is evidence to support the view that fewer holding calls could increase scoring: Kevin Seifert of ESPN reported that gaining a first down is twice as difficult on the play after an offensive penalty than after any other play.1
Some have noted that the pace of play is up this year, which could also lead to more scoring — under certain conditions. It certainly makes sense that if teams run more plays with a positive expectation — like, say, passing plays on early downs — scoring could be positively affected. And one play type in particular that has a high positive expectation is way up so far this year: going for it on fourth down and short.
So far this season, teams aren’t just going for it more often, they’re also succeeding. Through Week 4, offenses have converted on fourth-and-1 a whopping 77 percent of the time, according to Michael Lopez, the NFL’s director of analytics.
The league’s growing embrace of motion before the ball is snapped may also be having an effect on team scoring. Pre-snap motion — plays on which the offense sends a player across the formation in order to gain information or a numbers advantage — is up 9.2 percentage points from just four years ago.2 Seth Walder at ESPN has shown that pre-snap motion can give teams a substantial edge. Walder and ESPN analyst Brian Burke found an advantage of 0.04 expected points added per play on pass plays and 0.08 EPA per play on rush plays in which motion at the snap was used.
Walder focused specifically on motion at the snap of the ball in his research, but motion of any kind before the play appears to be working this year, particularly on pass plays. Teams are averaging 0.22 EPA per pass play when a player is motioned at any point before the play starts, 0.09 points better than on pass plays with no pre-snap motion.
Finally, play-action is up 5.6 percentage points since 2010. So far in 2020, the league average play-action pass has been worth an incredible 0.25 expected points added per play, making it the most valuable play type in football. Any increase in play-action rate leaguewide is likely to lead to higher scoring.
Given this explosive offensive environment, an interesting question to ask is: Which teams are most likely to profit? The benefit of a lack of holding calls may not be evenly distributed throughout the league, but so far we don’t have much evidence that there are teams that are getting any real edge over the competition. The New York Jets lead the league in offensive holding calls with seven — and they sit winless at 0-4 — but two teams are tied with zero holding calls, and one of them is the New York Giants, who are also winless. Similarly, a faster pace of play doesn’t necessarily benefit your team if the coaches are calling a run up the gut on first down and accepting the negative point expectation that goes along with it.
To try to tease out which franchises might be best positioned to thrive in the point-happy 2020 season, we created an aggressiveness index based on each team’s usage rates for pre-snap motion, play-action and how often they go for it on fourth and short. We scaled the index from 0 to 100, then ranked each team.
|Team||EPA/Play||Motion rate||Play-Action||“Go for it” rate||Index|
|Green Bay Packers||+0.32||50.2%||31.5%||85.7%||100.0|
|Los Angeles Rams||+0.18||56.5||48.5||60.0||97.8|
|Kansas City Chiefs||+0.21||54.7||23.2||66.7||79.5|
|Washington Football Team||-0.03||56.9||25.9||50.0||68.9|
|New England Patriots||+0.07||46.5||40.4||42.9||66.2|
|Las Vegas Raiders||+0.16||52.3||20.4||50.0||59.9|
|New York Giants||-0.13||27.8||19.2||75.0||59.2|
|San Francisco 49ers||+0.11||71.5||32.5||14.3||55.9|
|Los Angeles Chargers||+0.03||46.7||28.9||40.0||53.5|
|New Orleans Saints||+0.19||42.0||19.0||25.0||26.9|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||+0.10||38.8||16.7||16.7||14.5|
|New York Jets||-0.14||20.1||16.0||28.6||7.8|
The team pushing more edges than any other in the league right now is the undefeated Green Bay Packers under head coach Matt LaFleur. The Packers have gone for it on fourth and short 85.7 percent of the time, they utilize some form of pre-snap motion on 50.2 percent of offensive plays, and LaFleur dials up play-action at the sixth-highest rate of any team.
Right behind Green Bay are the Dallas Cowboys, an exciting offensive team that has so far only been able to notch a single win, gamely keeping pace with Washington and Philadelphia in the hellscape that is the NFC East. With a new coaching staff that seems willing to aggressively push edges, the Cowboys appear well-positioned to complete a turnaround and win the weakest division in football.
Finally, down at the very bottom of the index, we find the New York Jets. Averaging a negative 0.14 expected points added per play, the Jets offense is the worst in football. With the loss of Sam Darnold to a shoulder injury this week, they appear positioned to get even worse. There’s nothing in head coach Adam Gase’s profile so far this season that indicates help is on the way in the form of smart and aggressive play-calling. New York goes for it on fourth and short at one of the lowest rates in the league, they are 30th in play-action percentage, and they’re last in pre-snap motion. There are few sure bets in the NFL, and we’re still just four weeks into the season, but it’s not unreasonable to predict — like we have — that the Jets season is all but over.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.