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The mystery of disappearing points in the NFL

The (defensive) empire is striking back with lower-scoring games in 2022. The salary cap may also be having an effect. Is something new happening, too?

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Syndication: The Record
The Giants’ Matt Breida getting the first down after catching a pass out of a three-back formation against the Baltimore Ravens.
Danielle Parhizkaran/ / USA TODAY NETWORK

Over the past decade, the NFL has become perhaps the most exciting and entertaining sports league to watch, with amazingly gifted quarterbacks and receivers and innovative offenses creating so many explosive plays that it’s hard to include them all on the weekly highlight films. The sport’s entertainment value may have reached its apex in the 2021-2022 playoff season. Almost every game was a classic, none more so than the epic battle between Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen in the AFC Divisional Playoffs that saw four touchdowns and a field goal scored in the final two minutes of regulation.

And then came 2022. After six weeks of play, NFL once again seems to stand for “No Fun League,” but for a different reason than the one that gave rise to that moniker a decade ago when the league tried to cut down on celebrations. Scoring is down from previous seasons as NFL defenses try to claw back some of the ground they lost in the past decade or two after rules that favor offenses were adopted. But low-scoring defensive struggles can be classics (e.g., the Giants’ NFC Championship Game victory over the San Francisco 49ers in 2012).

That’s not 2022. This season, and especially in the prime time games that the league sees as its showcase, so many games have been amazingly boring and outright difficult to watch. Other games have been interesting, even well played, but lacked the fireworks that so many 2021 games had (e.g., the Mahomes-Allen rematch this past Sunday). Giants fans may not notice this as much as fans of other teams because of Big Blue’s improbable success and rise to playoff contention, but the Giants’ formula for winning may contain some clues about what’s going on.

2022 vs. previous seasons

Here are statistics on NFL offenses for the past 10 seasons compiled by Pro Football Reference:

Data courtesy of Pro Football Reference

2020, the pandemic-affected season, is an outlier on the high side for team scoring for several reasons unique to that year, perhaps none greater than the absence of fans from stadiums and the resulting increase in away team scoring. But 2022 thus far is seeing teams scoring at a lower rate than any year in the past decade, 21.6 points per game.

The root of the change seems to be in the passing game: From 2018-2020, teams passed on average for 235-240 yards per game vs. 228 in 2021 and 225 in 2022. Rushing has been closer to constant, even increasing by a few yards per game the last few years.

Here are some of the ways that decreased scoring has affected NFL games:

  • Through six weeks, the winning team scored on average 29.6 points in 2021 but only 26.1 thus far in 2022. The losing team scored 18.2 in 2021 but only 17.2 so far in 2022. On average games have been 2.4 points closer this season than last.
  • Teams won by 20 or more points 18 times the first six weeks of 2021 but only 11 times so far this season. The margin of victory up to this point was 10 points or less 56 times last season but 66 times already this year.
  • Last season a team had scored at least 30 points 54 times through Week 6, but it has happened only 29 times so far this year. On the other hand 10 or fewer points had been scored by teams only 16 times last year but has occurred 27 times already this year.

It’s only been six games per team (five games for four teams that have had a bye), a fairly small sample, so maybe the numbers won’t look so bad by the end of the season. There may be random elements too - in the 2017 season scoring was only a bit higher than 2022 has been, for no obvious reason. Numerous news outlets noted early in that season that scoring was down after the first couple of weeks. Some anticipated that it would recover by season’s end - but it didn’t. Are there any systematic reasons for what we are seeing this year?

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction

That’s Newton’s Third Law from physics, but it applies to the NFL too. Defenses will not just stand by as offensive innovations take over the game, they will eventually adapt and try to counter it with their own innovations. Former Denver Broncos’ head coach Vic Fangio is without a coaching job this season, although he was very quietly hired by the Philadelphia Eagles as a defensive consultant. That’s ironic, because the defensive strategy he popularized, the two-high safety zone defense, is sweeping the NFL like wildfire. In the first few weeks of the 2022 season it had become obvious that the majority of NFL teams were using two-high more often than they had in 2021:

Figure compiled by Arjun Menon, PFF (@arjunmenon100)

Arif Hasan of Pro Football Network has shown that there has been a steady upward trend in the use of two-high over the past few seasons:

Data courtesy Arif Hasan/Pro Football Network

Two-high safety coverage is intended to discourage quarterbacks from taking deep shots downfield and to make it easier for defensive backs to cover the receiver when they do. The average depth of target (ADOT) on passes is lower this year than in the past few years when QBs are facing two-high looks, but not so much when facing single-high safety coverage. So it appears that Fangio’s influence on the NFL has been to make it a more conservative league in which offenses are starting to throw fewer deep passes and more methodically moving the chains, taking more time to score and increasing their chances for mistakes that can kill drives.

Salary cap: The bill comes due

Still, the two-high zone can’t explain everything. Its use has been steadily increasing for years, yet team scoring had been pretty stable in recent years until 2022, when the wheels seem to have come off at least some NFL offenses.

One possible effect that hasn’t received attention is the NFL salary cap. The salary cap is a device that team owners use to limit their expenses and more or less guarantee profits. But it is also a way to promote league competitiveness. The salary cap prevents teams with extremely affluent owners from “buying” an NFL championship - unlike major league baseball, where teams can try to spend their way to World Series titles - not always with success as we know in the New York market.

The rubber meets the road when NFL general managers try to decide how to allocate the salary cap among their 53 players. The NFL is now a quarterback-driven league, and elite QBs are a scarce commodity, so the biggest contracts go to the most valuable QBs. And this has now officially become a problem. There are now 14 QBs, almost half the league, whose average annual pay now takes up 14 percent or more of the salary cap, according to Over The Cap:

Data courtesy of Over The Cap

That’s 1/7 or more of the money going to one player when 52 others have to be paid, too. General managers use various accounting gimmicks to avoid the costs of these big contracts, most of which have the effect of deferring much of the cost to future years while they chase a Super Bowl now. Eventually, though, the bill comes due. Increasingly, the way it comes due is by having elite wide receivers leave their teams to sign bigger contracts elsewhere.

  • Aaron Rodgers lost Davante Adams. Green Bay is on pace to score 303 points this year, down from 450 in 2021. Adams signed with Las Vegas, whose projected point total for 2022 is 50 higher than in 2021, but a far cry from the projected 147 points lost by Green Bay.
  • Ryan Tannehill lost A.J. Brown. Tennessee is on pace to score 326 points this year, down from 419 in 2021. Brown has made the Eagles a more dangerous team, but they are only on pace to score 12 more points than they did in 2021.
  • Dak Prescott lost Amari Cooper. It’s hard to say what the impact of that will be long-term since Prescott has missed most of the season so far. But he will have to lead the Cowboys to average 31 points per game when he returns to match their per game scoring from 2021. No NFL team is averaging that so far in 2022.

Only Patrick Mahomes has managed to compensate for the loss of an elite WR (Tyreek Hill) to date. Of course Mahomes still has Travis Kelce, who already has 455 receiving yards. He also has JuJu Smith-Schuster (370 yards) and Marquez Valdez-Scantling (258 yards), who have been productive replacing the yards that formerly went to Hill. Compare that to Rodgers, who was not given a new veteran WR to work with.

The salary cap squeeze also applies to another position, offensive tackle, probably the key position that allows teams to have success in the passing game. In coming years, as more of these key players demand a big payday and more of the deferred QB costs come due, we might expect to see more player movement that produces a greater degree of NFL parity but at the expense of juggernaut offenses.

The Giants and Falcons: At the vanguard of an offensive revolution?

OK, hear me out on this. The 2022 Giants have become a fascinating team to watch on both offense and defense. On defense, we know that is because the defensive coordinator is Wink Martindale, and Wink’s gonna do his thing no matter who he has to work with. And although the Giants clearly have holes at cornerback and off-ball linebacker, Martindale has a lot to work with elsewhere, especially along the defensive line and at safety.

On offense, though, many people have been assuming that the Giants are just in a holding pattern for the 2022 season. The combination of injuries and a lack of talent at wide receiver, holes in the interior offensive line, and the limitations of Daniel Jones as a quarterback have caused offensive coordinator Mike Kafka and head coach Brian Daboll to cook up all kinds of funky formations and pass route combinations just to survive and keep the Giants in games. In this view, reinforcements will arrive next year in free agency and the draft and we will then see the real offense that Kafka and Daboll envision deploying.

But what if that isn’t actually what’s happening? What if Kafka and Daboll are actually creating something new, toiling away like mad scientists in the castle, attaching new body parts, and waiting for lightning to strike? Waiting like Dr. Frankenstein until they can someday scream, “It’s alive!” Drawing up emergency Wildcat plays on a grease board in the middle of a game when Jones injures his ankle is one thing, but intentionally lining up like this - and succeeding - is another:

No, not a mini-surrender formation, but an attack formation with a pass thrown out of a set with three running backs. Hallucination or not, the Giants’ offense is fun to watch for more than just the team’s fans:

Did you ever think you’d see the Giants on a list just below Buffalo and Kansas City?

But look at the team that is tied for fifth in “watchability” with the Giants - the Atlanta Falcons? I have regarded the Falcons as possibly the worst team in the NFL and have been picking against them consistently in the weekly BBV staff picks. And I’ve been wrong three times. A playoff spot is not out of the question for them. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, since head coach Arthur Smith made a playoff-worthy quarterback out of Ryan Tannehill when he was the Tennessee Titans’ offensive coordinator. Since the Falcons are rarely if ever televised in the New York market, I went looking for information about them. Here’s a quote from a piece by Sports Talk Atlanta:

The Falcons are establishing the run and deploying plenty of play action passes off of it, which helps a struggling passer in Marcus Mariota. Atlanta looks tough up front as Falcons runners average 3.7 yards before contact, which is the 5th-best mark in the league. They’re also running a lot more RPOs this year with a more mobile quarterback, totaling 24 plays through three weeks. It looks like a completely different offense, and the Falcons are actually exciting to watch every Sunday now.

Does that sound almost word for word like what we are seeing weekly from Big Blue? Here is a chart from Mike Sando of The Athletic showing the change from 2021 to 2022 in team expected points added (EPA) per game for the 16 teams that have had an increase:

Chart courtesy of Mike Sando/The Athletic

The biggest improvement from 2021 to 2022 is for the Giants, with the Falcons second. The largest decreases to date are for the Rams (-11.1), whose offensive line is in shambles, the aforementioned Packers (-10.6), and the Buccaneers (-9.2), who have had losses both at receiver and on the offensive line.

In absolute EPA terms, the Giants and Falcons are not yet among the league’s elite teams (the Falcons are almost identical to the Giants but hidden below the Giants’ symbol):

Figure courtesy of

But they are actually top 10 in offensive EPA/play after six weeks and in the upper half of the league in composite offense-defense EPA.

How can this be for a team that rarely throws deep downfield passes? Well, there is more than one way to skin a cat:

The chart above is only for the first three weeks, but the Falcons and Giants are right up there close to the league leaders in explosive plays. Given the runs that Saquon Barkley and Daniel Jones broke off against Chicago and Green Bay it’s likely that they are still up with the league leaders after six weeks. The chart is difficult to interpret since explosive plays are defined as 10+ yards for rushes and 20+ yards for passes, and Atlanta has a good balance between pass and rush while the Giants’ explosive plays are mostly rushes. Regardless, though, the Giants are finding ways to get first downs in chunks.

Daniel Jones is thriving in the new offense. His overall PFF score isn’t remarkable (67.7). And he’s not running the run-pass option as much as in 2021 (12 times so far in 2022, vs. 74 times in 2021, according to Pro Football Reference). Compare that to Atlanta’s Marcus Mariota, who has run 65 RPOs already in 6 games. But Jones has used play action extensively: 46 times, second highest in the NFL according to PFF. And he has an amazing 91.3 PFF grade when using play action, tied for best in the NFL. The threat of the run, with Saquon Barkley having a great start to his season, is facilitating the Giants’ passing game.

The Giants’ recent formula for winning has been to combine those 10+ yard running plays with short passes that set receivers up for significant yards after catch. These create long scoring drives that frustrate opposing offenses as they sit and cool their heels on the sidelines. Against Green Bay the Giants had scoring drives of 6:10, 7:03, and 8:07. Against Baltimore they had scoring drives of 5:55, 7:41, and 6:53. It’s reminiscent of the 1990 Giants’ victory over Buffalo in the Super Bowl. The Giants’ offense isn’t scoring a lot of points. But it’s scoring enough (127 points through six games vs. 114 in 2021, bucking the trend of decreased scoring this season) because the opponent isn’t getting many chances to put points on the board and the defense is coming up big when it has to.

In today’s NFL, you’re not supposed to be able to win consistently with an offense that drains the clock rather than striking fast and often. But these new run-oriented offenses aren’t playing your father’s three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, here-I-come-try-to-stop-me NFL games from the 20th Century. They’re using deception and conflict, with a twist: The deception extends to the running game rather than being restricted to the passing game. And it’s really entertaining to watch. Meanwhile, for every Mahomes-Allen must-see-TV shootout, there seem to be twice as many supposed elite QB matchups in which no one seems to be able to sustain a drive and score points (Wilson-Ryan, Herbert-Wilson, Wentz-Fields; ok, that last one wasn’t elite but it was just as boring). Maybe it’s just that the elite QBs are getting old or are injured or both. Maybe it’s that they are stifled by two-high safety looks. Maybe it’s that the elite QBs aren’t as often paired with elite receivers. Or maybe we’re at the start of a torch passing to a different kind of offense.

The larger issues raised by all of this are:

  • Is the downturn in scoring a temporary phenomenon, or is the NFL pendulum beginning to swing back toward more of a balance between offense and defense, and between brief explosive drives and controlling the clock?
  • Are quarterback mega-contracts a sustainable phenomenon that allows a team multiple shots at Super Bowl titles, or an albatross that eventually drags Super Bowl contenders back down to mediocrity?
  • Are Brian Daboll, Mike Kafka, and Arthur Smith just doing what they need to do to be competitive with inferior talent, or are they inventing the diversified, unstoppable offenses of the NFL’s future? If the opponent is going to throw a two-high safety defense at you and surrender a light box to limit your explosive passing plays, why not take advantage with explosive running plays against that light box?