The fourth quarter of the 2020 NFL regular season begins Thursday night as all teams have played 12 games. Scoring has been at a historic rate all season, but things have slowed down in recent weeks as some weather games took place and the Broncos played a game without a quarterback.
Still, teams in 2020 are averaging more points per game (24.7), yards per game (357.4), and first downs per game (21.7) than in any season in NFL history. The previous scoring record is 23.4 points per game in 2013, so teams would have to average fewer than 20 points per game over the next month to not set a new benchmark.
Playing defense in a pandemic season without an offseason to prepare sure seems to have that group behind its offensive foes, but you would think by December that would have less of an impact. It also couldn’t have been a huge positive for those offenses too, especially in a year where so many quarterbacks moved to new teams after many seasons in the same place (Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Teddy Bridgewater, etc.).
Maybe the lack of crowds is having a bigger impact than imagined. Offenses are able to communicate better in silence or limited noise, leading to more effective play. Defenses aren’t getting that adrenaline boost from a roaring crowd on third down when the pass-rush is unleashed. If crowds return in 2021 and the offensive numbers drop to more of their 2018-19 levels, then we might be able to say it was as simple as a lack of an offseason and crowds that produced such an offensive boom.
But here are some interesting numbers to chew on anyway with a quarter of the season to go.
In 2020, the home team now has a record of 96-95-1 (.503). That would be the worst home winning percentage in a season since the 1970 merger. The record still belongs to the 1972 season (50.8%).
Again, this one is weird because the record was already one of the worst in 2019, before anyone heard of COVID-19. But it will be interesting to see if we can have a season where the home team has a losing record. This is why the playoffs could be really exciting and unpredictable since home-field just doesn’t mean what it used to.
Third Down Conversions
Offenses are still crushing it on third down this season. We have stats for this back to 1991, and this season’s third-down conversion rate of 41.6% is easily the highest season on record. The previous high is 40.1% in 1995, a notoriously pass-happy season where even the Bears (Erik Kramer) had a passing offense. So this would be only the second season over 40%.
Red Zone Touchdown Rate
Some top teams (Chiefs, Steelers) struggled in the red zone this week, but that is not indicative of the type of season offenses have had in the red zone.
In 2020, teams are scoring a touchdown on 61.5% of red zone opportunities, the highest in any season since 1999. The previous high is 59.1% in 2018.
This is a stat that has been trending upwards over the last two decades, but again we are at a record high this season.
One thing I will point out that bugs me about this stat’s calculation is that it does not exclude drives at the end of the game where a team may be taking a knee and not even trying to score since the win in secure. Sometimes we even see a team get a takeaway or turnover on downs on the loser’s final drive that starts the final possession in the red zone, only for it to be a kneeldown or two. Now I can’t prove that this happens more often in any season than another, but it is something to keep in mind when you see numbers on red zone conversion rates.
Offensive Holding Is Still Way Down
Finally, the stat that may explain everything the best this year is the lack of offensive holding penalties. Through Week 13, there have been 369 offensive holding penalty flags. From 2009-2019, the average through this point of the season was 494 holding penalties. That’s almost 1,200 fewer penalty yards this year, and we know how many big plays can be taken away due to a holding penalty.
Imagine that, a year after we have 596 offensive holding penalties through 13 weeks, the highest total since 2009, the league has really encouraged officials to call things differently this season. “Clear and obvious” has been the standard thrown out there by rules experts on several broadcasts.
If you have fewer holding penalties, that means you are staying out of situations like 1st-and-20 or 3rd-and-goal from the 13. That makes it easier to convert a third down or score a touchdown in the red zone.
I think the lack of holding is heavily related to the historic rates on third down and in the red zone, and the lack of crowds is also a contributing factor to the offensive success.
Add it all together, along with the unmentioned increase in fourth down attempts, and you have the highest scoring season in NFL history.
All I can ask for is a season played to completion where every remaining game has an actual quarterback, even if he sucks terribly. Let’s finish this legitimately and see if any defense steps up in the playoffs.