As we are changing over into a strong push into the 2021 fantasy draft season, we are going to start exploring some of the data points from the most recent NFL season and see what kind of notes and lessons we can take away in application to the upcoming season. The goal is that come late-August, we have covered all corners of the fantasy Earth from a team, player, position, and game theory stance to accurately calibrate our draft strategy for this upcoming season.
Earlier this week we took a look at per drive scoring output for teams. Today, we are going to do the same for the rates of which type of offensive touchdowns NFL offenses score.
League Offensive Touchdown Splits Over the Past 10 Years
For the longest time, roughly two-thirds of all offensive touchdowns have come through the air. This is easily explained by the fact that the majority of rushing touchdowns are determined by how close to the goal line an offense can get compared to passing scores. While the past two seasons are not far off from the idea of that 65/35 split on average, we have seen that there has been an influx of scores on the ground these past two seasons. Two of the three highest rates for rushing scores over the past 10 seasons have come over the past two years while 2020 had the largest share of league-wide rushing touchdowns. 37.9% of the league’s offensive touchdowns came via the ground, the highest rate since 2008 (42.4%).
2020 was the highest-scoring season in league history and rushing scores came along for the ride. The 532 rushing touchdowns last season were the most in any NFL season ever, easily trumping the 487 rushing scores that were the previous high set all the way back in 1979.
While we established that the circumstances surrounding the pandemic accelerated an already rising tide in scoring last season, there is an easy correlation to why rushing scores made such a drastic spike in terms of overall scores and the percentage of touchdowns the league had on the ground.
That reason is one familiar to my brand if you have followed and has to do with the influx of athletic quarterbacks into the league and the steadily increasing use of the quarterback in the running game. Last season, quarterbacks set all-time highs in share of league-wide rushing attempts, rushing yardage, and rushing touchdowns. Quarterbacks accounted for 23.9% of all rushing touchdowns after a 17.9% mark in 2019 and a 16.2% rate in 2018. In terms of total rushing scores, quarterbacks scored a whopping 127 times on the ground last season after setting all-time highs with 80 rushing scores in 2019 and 71 scores on the ground the year prior. We should see some recoil on the total rushing scores and maybe even some on the league-wide share, but with another wave of quarterbacks attached to solid to elite athletic profiles in Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, and Justin Fields entering the league, we are just adding more logs on to the fire here.
Y-O-Y CORRELATIONS ARE WEAK, BUT WE CAN STILL PLAY THE REGRESSION GAME
As usual, we want to explore just how sticky these stats carry over year-to-year on a team level. The answer here is not much at all as both the rate of passing and rushing touchdowns carry just an R-squared correlation of .0442 for the following season.
Despite throwing the year-over-year team carryover out of the window, we can still take away some broad strokes in relation to outperforming and underperforming the league rate.
Over the previous 10 seasons, 85.7% of the teams that were above the league average in passing touchdown reliance came back the following season and had a decrease in passing touchdown share. Those teams had an average drop of 10.8% share of passing touchdowns and average loss of 4.5 passing touchdowns per season. Among all of those 120 teams, 81.7% scored more rushing touchdowns the following season with an average increase of 5.3 scores on the ground.
Looking at the impact of the most recent NFL season, 11 of the 16 teams in the top half of the league in passing touchdown dependency in 2019 had a decrease in that reliance last year while 13 of those teams scored more rushing touchdowns on the ground than the year prior.
On the other side of the coin, 65.7% of the teams below the league average in passing touchdown reliance over the past 10 years had an increase in that rate the following season with an average spike of 12.1% per team. 66.7% of those teams threw more overall touchdown passes the following season with an average increase of 9.1 passing scores among those teams. Inversely, 59% of those teams had a decrease in overall team rushing touchdowns the following season, with an average loss of 5.4 rushing scores per season among those teams.
With the idea of where regression in touchdown dependency shows up the following season, let’s look at the 2020 team splits and carve out some notes with an eye on the 2021 campaign.
2020 Team Offensive Touchdown Splits
2020 PASS TD DEPENDENCY
Looking at the top of the teams that relied more on passing scores last season, we had three teams (Texans, Chiefs, and Packers) score over 75% of their touchdowns through the air. Those teams were 21st, 15th, and 25th in passing touchdown rate in 2019.
Over the previous 10 years, there were 67 teams to have over 75% of their scores come through the air. 61 of them (91%) had a decline the following season with an average loss of 12.8% among those teams. Those teams saw a bump in rushing scores, with an average increase of 5.1 team rushing touchdowns. Lowering that arbitrary threshold down to 70% and we get 107 teams, with 90 of them (84.1%) having a loss in passing touchdown rate with an average decline of 11.8%.
We also had another six teams (Steelers, Jaguars, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Chargers, and Bills) over 70%. In 2019, there were eight teams to have over 70% of their scores come through the air, with only one (the Steelers) increasing their dependency on passing scores last season. The Steelers and the Bears were the only teams among that group to have more passing touchdowns last year than the year prior as well.
As you probably have noticed, these passing-dependent teams from a year ago have a clear overlap with positive quarterback play with the lone exception being the Jaguars.
The Packers were an easy mark for a significant spike in passing scores last season after they ranked 25th in the league in passing touchdown rate (59.1%) the year prior, the lowest rate over Aaron Rodgers’s career.
The Bills made a ton of strides in game management in maxing out the best season of Josh Allen’s career. After a 46.4% and 61.8% rate of passing touchdowns, that mark spiked upwards to 71.4% last season. Buffalo popped up yesterday as a team we should be expecting scoring regression for in our first look at team production. We should be expecting Allen to have fewer passing scores per game in 2021, but not all regression is something to run away from as Allen has been a viable fantasy quarterback no matter what his passing stats have been and we should not expect any regression to take him back to his passing output to start his career.
At the end of the day, we should be anticipating the crux of these teams having a lowered dependency on passing scores in 2021 with a spike in team rushing touchdowns.
2020 RUSH TD DEPENDENCY
As stated in the open, passing scores have typically made up 60-65% of all touchdowns scored on offense. While the opening teams ran hotter than the league rates, there were still a handful of teams that were reliant on rushing touchdowns to find the end zone.
There were five teams that relied on rushing scores to account for 50% of more of their touchdowns. Only one of those teams (the Patriots) was attached to one of those mobile quarterbacks highlighted in the open. 62.5% of the offensive touchdowns scored by the Patriots came on the ground, the highest rate since the 2016 Bills (63%) and the second-highest rate over the past 11 NFL seasons.
That Bills team went from a 37% passing touchdown rate up to a 57.1% rate the following season and had 17 fewer rushing touchdowns. There were 23 teams over the previous decade before these five teams last season to have at least half of their offensive touchdowns come via rushing. 22 of those 23 had their rate of passing touchdowns increase the following season. Those teams averaged a decrease of 4.6 team rushing touchdowns the following season.
20 of those teams threw more passing touchdowns the following season with an average increase of 9.2 passing scores among those teams.
Outside of the Patriots being on the extreme far end of relying on rushing scores to get into the paint, the Panthers (54.3%), Football Team (52.9%), Giants (52%), and Saints (51.7%) join them as teams at 50% or higher.
Taking that arbitrary dependency closer to the league averages and looking at teams with 40% or more of their offensive scores coming on the ground, we get a much larger 95-team sample. 73 (76.8%) of those teams increased their rate of passing touchdowns the following season with an average spike of 13.6% and 6.5 passing touchdowns while having an average loss of 4.8 rushing touchdowns.
With over three-fourths of these teams historically swinging in the other direction the next season, there are another 10 teams in this bucket from a year ago. The Rams (48.7%), Ravens (47.1%), Colts (45.5%), Cardinals (44.9%), Titans (44.1%), Browns (43.8%), 49ers (43.2%), Eagles (42.1%), Raiders (41.7%), and Bengals (40.6%) hit that cutoff. The Ravens, Cardinals, and Eagles are teams that use their athletic quarterbacks to their advantage near the end zone from that subset of teams.