If the NFL Has Pivoted to Offense, Why Was Scoring Down in '22-23?

by Hollywood Sports

It is considered conventional wisdom in many circles that the National Football desires and has been successful in making changes to the game to generate higher-scoring games. Perhaps the higher-ups of the NFL want higher scores, but that does not mean they are getting higher scores. 

"The league is pivoting to offense" mantra continues despite the average points-per-game mark dropping to 21.9 Points-Per-Game for the '22-23 NFL season. Last year was the second-straight season that scoring is down from its historic 24.8 Points-Per-Game high in 2020 (the year without fans in the stands because of the COVID outbreak, interestingly).

The 21.9 Points-Per-Game average in 2022-23 was the lowest NFL scoring average since 2017 -- and the second-lowest since 2009. 

Perhaps the drop in scoring was due to more rushing attempts. The more teams run the football, the more time that burns off the play clock. Since midway through last season, the Philadelphia Eagles demonstrated that teams could be highly successful on offense with an attack that leaned heavily on the ground game. Other teams like the Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns, and Washington Commanders amped up their rushing attacks. The Baltimore Ravens have been a run-first team with quarterback Lamar Jackson for years. Adherents of the notion that trends in the NFL are cyclical identify the strategic advantage teams seize with run-heavy offensive systems in an environment where more and more teams are deploying 4-2-5 defensive schemes with two linebackers and five defensive backs as their base defense to thwart pass-heavy offenses that often use three or more wide receivers. 

Rushing attempts were up to 27.3 runs per game last year which was the highest since 2011. The low was in 2019 when teams averaged 25.9 runs per game. But it is difficult to conclude that scoring is down by almost a field per game from 2020 simply because teams are trading off one or two passes per game for a rushing attempt. 

The passing game was down to 33.3 attempts per game in '22-23. That was the lowest since 2009. The league average for pass attempts peaked in '15-16 and '16-17 with 35.7 passes per game.

Average offensive plays are down by roughly one to two per game. But does that really explain a 1.1 Points-Per-Game drop from last year -- and 2.0 Points-Per-Game from the 20-21 season? Something else is going on -- and the numbers contradict the lazy “league is moving to offense" trope.

I do not know what the answer is. However, I do know that claims that the league is “making rule changes to the help offenses” are not precise. The recent changes in the NFL to protect quarterbacks and wide receivers in the name of player safety would seem to make it easier for teams to execute in the passing game. But does more passing necessarily lead to more scoring? More passing plays trade off with rushing plays. 

Or perhaps what NFL teams have realized is that their efficiency on offense — and their effectiveness overall when taking into account the benefits of running the ball to keep the clock moving and afford more time for their defense to rest — requires running the ball more often?

With the Eagles reaching — and almost winning — the Super Bowl, these trends to running the ball are likely to continue into next season, despite what you may continue to hear from those touting the “scoring is up” false assumption. 

Best of luck — Frank.      

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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