Every offseason I write a series of articles surrounding positional usage and scoring trends. The goal for those is very simple. We are solely looking to maintain a pulse for where the landscape of the league currently is and if any outliers stand out for us to incorporate into the upcoming season.
Before we can get into each position, it is always good to take look at the surface area for the league in general.
Every NFL season is unique.
A year ago in the Sharp Football 2021 Preview, I wrote about how the 2020 season was played in the most unique conditions of the modern era. The way the pandemic was handled had a trickle-down impact on what ended up being the highest-scoring season in league history.
League Trends 2016-2021
*All NFL Drives excluding ones that ended in kneel downs
|Yards Gained Per TD||138.9||131||143.2||140.2||152.6||146|
|Scoring Drive %||39.46%||41.71%||37.54%||37.93%||35.16%||37.01%|
|TD Drive %||23.93%||26.43%||22.79%||23.41%||19.92%||21.95%|
|Red Zone Drive %||31.93%||32.92%||30.03%||29.37%||26.78%||29.57%|
|Red Zone TD %||58.45%||62.00%||56.10%||58.82%||52.42%||55.26%|
Despite the NFL adding a 17th regular season game for everyone this past season, 58 fewer offensive touchdowns were scored last year than in 2020.
Any time we have a record-setting spike in a season as we had across the board in 2020, we almost always expect regression. That happened in 2021 as every primary category here dropped from the previous year.
Even with those dips from 2020, 2021 still showcased how the NFL continues to trend towards increased efficiency and scoring, only falling more in line with previous seasons compared to 2020. Instead of just shrugging things off solely as regression, I did want to circle back on some of the elements from that article that I believe were unique to 2020 and see how things compared in 2020.
Now, the 2021 season was still significantly impacted by COVID. I definitely do not want to act like things just completely went back to normal in the league last year. In December alone, there were over 500 positive cases that impacted the close of the season. Of the bottom-11 teams in game absences due to COVID, zero made the postseason. Of the top-11 teams with the fewest absences due to COVID, eight ended up in the playoffs.
While COVID still placed a large fingerprint on the 2021 season, one of the elements that players and coaches brought up regularly as a major difference in 2020 was the reduced attendance and the impact of the lack of crowd participation impacting home-field advantage.
Road Team Performance, 2016-2021
Home-field advantage has been something that has been waning across the league for multiple seasons. Road teams were solid again a year ago, looking comparable to the 2019 season from a top-down perspective.
A year after the NFL road team posted their first ever .500 record and set records in points per game, home teams rebounded to have an edge.
Road vs Home Passing Difference, 2016-2021
A year after road quarterbacks not only had their best output in league history, but outright out-performed home passers in nearly every category, away quarterbacks reverted below home passers in completion percentage, touchdown rate, interception rate, sack rate, and overall rating a year ago. The only area that held up for away teams was edging out the home team in yards per pass attempt.
After a record-setting 4.8% touchdown rate on the road in 2020, away passers posted a 4.3% rate in 2021, their lowest rate since 2017.
We already know that the majority of the touchdowns scored in the NFL come the closer you get to the end zone and that reduction in touchdown rate can be traced back to the impact of red zone performance coming back down for road teams a year ago.
In 2020, road teams combined to convert 62.0% of their red zone possessions for touchdowns. In 2021, things were still healthy at 56.0%, but pulled back a touch.
Overall, NFL teams were not poor on the road by any means in 2021, but there is still some signal in how their performance was aided by the conditions in 2020.
While the return of home attendance had more of a minor impact, one area in 2020 that completely stood out in research from a year was the reduction of offensive penalties, in particular offensive holding.
Primary Offensive Penalties Per Game, 2016-2021
|Total Yards Lost||9083||6870||6976||6844||6304||6698|
|Yards Lost Per Game||33.4||26.8||37.6||37.5||34.5||37.5|
Offensive holding was called just 1.8 times per game in 2020 per Pro Football Reference, the lowest rate in 2000s. Just 462 offensive holding calls were enforced after 724, 708, 664, 703, and 709 times the previous five seasons. That number was 649 in 2021.
The good news is that number of calls and the yardage lost per game are still lower than the five previous seasons.
This one was not a major outlier, but false starts were down to 1.9 times per game in 2020, which was also the fewest in a season in the 2000s. That number climbed back up to 2.1 per game this past season.
Offensive holding and false starts are the two most common penalties in the league. This past year, holding (649 times) and false starts (573) led the way in penalty types enforced. The next closest was defensive pass interference at 301 times, while the next closest offensive penalty was delay of game at 161 times.
While I did not have the capability of filtering per penalty type, I was able to see the impact that having a penalty on offense has on a drive per TruMedia.
TD and Punt Rates per Drive With and Without Offensive Penalty
|% of TD/Drive W/Penalty||19.9%||22.0%||18.9%||20.6%||16.1%||19.4%|
|% Punt/Drive W/Penalty||40.3%||40.4%||43.8%||44.4%||47.6%||43.4%|
Just by having any offensive penalty, the touchdown rate per drive dips 3.8% while the rate of punts climbs 7.9% over the past five years.
Those margins are extremely tighter than the impact of taking a sack has on offensive output, which is an adjacent component of reduced offensive holding penalties.
In 2020, quarterbacks were sacked 1,135 times (4.4 per game), which was 141 fewer times than they were sacked in 2019 and 146 times fewer than in 2018. 2021 seen quarterbacks sacked 1,244 times. Even with holding being called more in 2021 than 2020, it is still being called at a lower rate and the total amount of sacks is still well below rates of previous seasons prior to 2020. With sacks rates of 5.98% and 5.69% the past two years, it is the first time since the 2007-2010 seasons that the league has had sack rates below 6.0% in back-to-back years.
If you do not believe that is important, check this out…
Offensive Rates per Drive With and Without a Sack Taken
data per TruMedia
|Pts Per Drive W/Sack||0.99||1.07||0.92||1.02||0.93||0.98|
|% of Score/Drive W/Sack||21.9%||23.7%||21.8%||23.8%||21.1%||22.4%|
|% of TD/Drive W/Sack||8.3%||9.2%||6.6%||7.8%||7.2%||7.8%|
|% Punt/Drive W/Sack||51.5%||50.4%||52.8%||54.6%||54.1%||52.7%|
Having a penalty is nowhere in the same realm of detriment as to taking a sack. With just taking a top-down look on if you a take a sack on a possession no matter the location or down, the scoring rate per drive drops a staggering 17.8%.
Just 7.8% of all drives with a sack over the past five seasons have resulted in a touchdown compared to a 25.8% on drives without a sack. We are looking at 28,796 drives in this sample. That is a massive difference in having three times as much likelihood to score a touchdown on a drive with a sack as to taking one.
Teams that take a sack have 52.7% of those possessions end in a punt compared to just 33.8% without. If you are looking for the number one indicator of the outcome of a possession, sack prevention is a skeleton key.
The reduction in sacks taken and sack rate these past two seasons has been a boon to scoring. We have no idea how static the recent leniency will remain, but the reduction of offensive holding penalties plays a role in that drop.
Wrapping this up, there is absolutely more descriptive data here than anything but we can see throughout that the NFL is in a good place in remaining a high-scoring league while 2020 also significantly stands out as the peak output we have ever seen. I believe that output was aided by a perfect cocktail of the pandemic’s attendance reduction and altering how holding was called paired with how good teams are offensively now.
After taking this top-down look at the scoring landscape, we will be moving into positional usage and scoring trends over the next couple of weeks.