The 2020 NFL season was explosive. A year that began with historic levels of scoring ended with 100 total touchdowns scored in Week 17, the most for the final week of the season since at least 2001. That bounty pushed season totals to all-time highs. Teams passed for 871 touchdowns — more than at any other season in league history. Ten quarterbacks threw more than 30 touchdowns, and three — Aaron Rodgers (48), Tom Brady (40) and Russell Wilson (40) — tossed 40 or more. And the profligate scoring wasn’t just through the air. Teams also rushed for 532 touchdowns, 45 more than the second-highest total ever recorded, back in 1979.
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These raw totals, while impressive, overstate the overall scoring environment because of the increase in the number of teams and games played over time. Still, 2020 was the most prolific touchdown-scoring environment ever through the air — and the second-most prolific on the ground — on a per-team basis. And if we adjust for both the number of games played as well as the number of teams, 2020 is tied for the most passing touchdowns in history on a per-team, per-game basis (1.7).
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What led to this leaguewide scoring outburst? It’s likely that a mix of factors contributed, including an increase in play-action passing across the league, a drop in offensive penalties and the disappearance of home-field advantage.
As we’ve noted previously, play-action has the highest expected points added per play in the NFL, so it makes sense that if teams were to make more use of the play fake, more points would be scored. It turns out that 2020 represents the high-water mark for share of play-action on passing plays across the league. And those play fakes represented the highest share of passing yards for the period for which we have data.
Teams ran more play-action than ever in 2020
Yards gained on play-action plays as a share of all passing yards, 2008-20
|Season||Play-Action %||Yards gained %|
While teams were exploiting a hyper-efficient play type at historic levels, they were also being penalized on offense at historically low levels. Accepted offensive penalties in this season were the lowest since in the 32-team era.1 The 1,227 offensive penalties assessed were 130 fewer than 2013 and 283.2 penalties lower than the average from the previous 19 years. Meanwhile the flags kept flying against defenses. The 2020 season saw the seventh-most defensive penalties accepted since 2002, so the combination of fewer offensive penalties and an above-average number of defensive penalties helped to keep drives alive and likely contributed to the profusion of points.
Offensive penalties were down in 2020
Leaguewide offensive and defensive penalties accepted, 2001-20
|Offensive penalties||Defensive penalties|
For reasons that remain stubbornly elusive, home-field advantage in the NFL has, until recently, conferred a 2.5- to 3-point advantage. But Konstantinos Pelechrinis of the University of Pittsburgh found that this year, the advantage appears to have disappeared completely.
Home teams won just 50.4 percent of their games this season. The reasons as to why are unclear. COVID-19, and the empty stadiums that accompany it, seems an easy explanation, but home teams in 2019 won just 52 percent of the time, only slightly higher than in 2020 — and a big drop from the 60 percent of 2018.
Whatever the cause, another way of viewing home-field advantage is as a tax on the scoring potential of the visiting team. On this view, removing home-field advantage would boost scoring by 2.5 to 3 points for half the league on a per-game basis. Over a 256-game regular season, that would imply 640 to 768 more points than in a year with a normal home-field advantage. As a first approximation, we estimate that home-field advantage could have contributed 73 to 88 of the historic total of 1,403 combined rushing and passing touchdowns in 2020.
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Other factors might also be at play. Go-for-it attempts were up and punts were down. Two-point conversion attempts were also up. Still, play-action, the sudden dip in offensive penalties and the effects of COVID-19 on home-field advantage likely drove a substantial portion of the extra touchdowns we saw this season. And while there’s not a lot of evidence that home-field advantage will suddenly reappear with the return of fans to the stadium, long-term trends like the increased use of play-action suggest that if you’re a lover of scoring, future NFL seasons shouldn’t disappoint.
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CORRECTION (Jan. 8, 2021, 2:55 p.m.): A previous version of this article calculated points and touchdowns gained from home-field advantage based on 512 team games, instead of the 256 total games played. Removing normal home-field advantage could have contributed 640 to 768 points in a season, instead of 1,280 to 1,536 points, and 73 to 88 touchdowns, instead of 146 to 176.