Taking place during a global pandemic, the 2020 N.F.L. season always figured to be an outlier, and predictably there have been persistent coronavirus outbreaks, a hastily restructured playing schedule and games contested in stark, empty stadiums.
But on the field, the fundamental goal of the game is surprisingly being achieved more successfully than ever.
N.F.L. teams have been scoring points at an unprecedented level in the season’s opening four weeks, an augmented efficacy that if sustained will rewrite the league’s 100-year-old record book. Whether the surge of high-scoring games this season is related to the effects of the pandemic is up for debate, but the statistics are irrefutable.
Through four weeks of the 2020 season, the average combined score of a game is 51.3 points, an increase of 16 percent over the same period a year ago and a roughly 20 percent increase in the average score of games since 2000.
Fifty-two times in the 63 games played during the first four weeks, a team has scored 30 or more points. In the same period last season, that happened 30 times. Teams have scored 35 or more points 16 times this season, a 78 percent increase compared with games played during the first four weeks of last season.
The Green Bay Packers are averaging 38 points a game and the Seattle Seahawks, on the strength of a nearly five touchdown-per-game pace, are averaging 35.5 points per game. Even the Dallas Cowboys, who have lost three of four games, have been scoring at a 31.5-point clip.
Some things are largely unchanged. The scoring averages for the Jets (16.2) and the Giants (11.8) are the lowest in the league.
Theories on the cause of the scoring surge have proliferated, including the advantages afforded road teams since they are no longer tormented by raucous home crowds, a curious drop in the number of penalties called and a decline in tackling skills resulting from the cancellation of preseason games.
Or, is the points boost simply a mix of the sport’s natural evolution and a desire to give fans what they want?
“I mean, people like scoring, right?” said Brian Baldinger, a former, longtime N.F.L. lineman who is now an analyst for the NFL Network.
Perhaps the most consistently mentioned explanation is the overhaul taking place at quarterback. The vanguard at the position is now personified by Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs, the leader of the defending Super Bowl champion. His upfield dashes and elusiveness in the passing pocket have been mirrored by Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, last year’s N.F.L. Most Valuable Player.
Other young quarterbacks in that same mold abound, including Houston’s Deshaun Watson and Buffalo’s Josh Allen. Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, 31, helped set the tone with a similar skill set and has since compiled a 90-41-1 regular season record as a starter. Even Tom Brady, who at 43 years old may not be part of the youth movement at quarterback, threw for five touchdowns Sunday.
“These athletes playing quarterback who are throwers and runners put so much stress on the defenses because they can limit what defenses you can use,” Chris Spielman, a former four-time Pro Bowl linebacker and Fox Sports analyst, said.
The man-to-man defense, a longstanding tenet of pass coverage that calls for defensive backs and linebackers to quickly turn and run backward with pass catchers, has become a potential liability.
“A mobile quarterback, if he sees man coverage on third down, instead of making a tough throw he’s going to get the same yardage by running the football because the defenders’ backs are turned,” Spielman said. “Those quarterbacks are keeping drives alive with their legs.”
Teams that keep possession of the football the longest typically score the most points. There may be, however, another reason that N.F.L. offenses are staying on the field longer. Coaches are getting bolder and eschewing a punt when faced with fourth down and short yardage — and succeeding at picking up the first down when they do. Green Bay punter J.K. Scott has punted just seven times in four games.
“The way things are going the punters might become dinosaurs,” Baldinger said.
The lack of a usual off-season — spring workouts were uniformly canceled — along with a truncated August preseason with fewer practices and no preseason games is also considered a reason for the rising point totals. With limited time to install defensive game plans and assess early season opponents, defensive coaches had little choice but to spend less time on certain defensive fundamentals, like tackling drills, which had already been cut back in the last decade to try to minimize hits to the head. Poor tackling will lead to a variety of defensive letdowns, and more touchdowns and field goals.
Even with pandemic restrictions, many quarterbacks found ways to prepare by inviting wide receivers and running backs to informal workouts at high school fields or parks. It was a continuation of a trend that started at least a decade ago when quarterbacks began holding camps with their pass-catching colleagues.
“It’s almost like you’re going to be shamed if you don’t do it,” Charles Davis, an N.F.L. analyst for CBS, said of the increase in quarterback-led off-site workouts.
But this year, the prohibition of formal practices, coupled with the down time that permeated the lives of most people during the pandemic, seemed to spur more offensive players to assemble unofficially.
“They’ve spent more time together than they ever have,” Davis said.
And then, there’s the declining number of penalty flags being thrown this season, especially for offensive holding, which has been called 126 times in the opening quarter of this season. That’s a 56 percent decrease from the first four weeks of last season, when the N.F.L. made offensive holding a point of emphasis for its officials. While the league this year has made no mention of being more lax on offensive holding, an ex-offensive lineman like Baldinger has noticed what he called “downright muggings” of defensive players.
“They’re just not calling it, and offenses aren’t getting backed up by those penalties,” Baldinger said.
Finally, there is the effect of a nonexistent or diminished crowd. The record of road teams in the first four weeks of the season is 31-31-1, an improvement over last season when away teams won only 48 percent of games. Among other things, the lack of crowd noise seems to benefit offensive linemen who can more clearly hear the quarterback’s barked signals.
“It has to help pass protectors if they’re getting two- or three-tenths of a second longer to react,” Spielman said.
But can that minuscule head start be enough to cause a 16 percent surge in scoring? No one is certain, and some expect the defenses to rally as the season continues.
“The defenses do usually start catching up as we go along,” said Davis, although he conceded the dominance of modern, versatile N.F.L. offenses will not abate.
“How much will the scoring come down the rest of the season?” Davis asked. “Well, I don’t think it goes from 51 points a game to 21.”