If it seems like there are tons of tough games every week in the NFL this season, you’re definitely not imagining things. When it comes to closing competitions, 2022 is shaping up to be the best of all time. 92 games so far this season (90 decisions and two draws) have resulted in 6 or fewer points in Week 14, the most in NFL history. To put that in perspective, at least half of all games played in nine of the 14 weeks ended in 6 points or less.
All these close games led to incredibly exciting endings. The latest example is Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s last-minute drive against the Houston Texans on Sunday, a win that saved the Cowboys from the embarrassment of losing to a weak 17-point player. In Los Angeles on Thursday, we also faced an unexpected comeback led by Baker Mayfield against the Las Vegas Raiders – a win that came just two days after he joined the Rams. And there have been 75 more game-winning drives where these have come since the season started.
In fact, the teams are at record-breaking speed to win 101 games in 2022; that’s 12 more than any other season since the merger. And even after adjusting for added games in a 17-week season, speed history: NFL averages 5.5 game-winning rides per week. Have mercy.
What’s going on here? Who raised the pair to such unbelievable rates and should we expect this to continue?
A partial answer is that teams have become more conservative in their passing attacks for much of the game, and more controlling than they have in any season since at least the mid-2000s. In 2022, about 24 percent of all passing attempts occurred at or behind the scrimmage line; That’s a 5.8 percent increase over 2006 (our first season with data), and the highest we’ve seen since then. Average target depth in the NFL dropped from 8.74 to 7.47 yards in that range, and in a not-so-shocking turn, shorter passing led to a lower passing distance: Yards-per-completion also hit a 16-year low. at 10.95.
The net effect of the reduction in downfield pass was fewer passing hits and a decrease in overall scoring. NFL teams average 22.0 points per game in 2022, up from an all-time high of 24.8 just two seasons ago. Some of the decline in offense can be explained by two league-wide increases in security coverage, but the evidence for this theory isn’t very strong. (It can also just be all of these Justin Herbert controls.)
In some ways, the league has evolved from a league where armed robbers fill the air with field bombs to one that power-running lover Vince Lombardi can appreciate. For example, interventions per game, which has been in a steady decline since the 1950s, are now at their lowest level since 1930. Meanwhile, rushing has never been more efficient. Yep, that’s right: NFL teams pass so many times that it’s become easier to get distance off the ground. Yards per attempt to run rose 4.5 yards per carry, up from 4.4 last season’s high, the highest level in league history.
But it’s not just old-school conservatism that has led to close games. One aspect of the game that Lombardi won’t notice (and probably won’t approve of) is its continued popularity of fourth place. On a match-by-match basis, coaches play the second most frequently since at least 1984,one and they convert these trials at the seventh highest rate in the same range. The vast majority of the league (20 teams) have opted for it 15 or more times this season.
The main benefit of fourth-down aggression is that it allows teams to expand rides. Possession time per driver (2:48) is the second-highest since 2000 (2:32), an increase of 16 seconds over that time. The downside to offenses is that longer runs mean less possession per game.
A little modeling shows that we should expect teams to lose about one drive per game for every 15 second increase in possession time per drive.2 And in 2022 the teams are right with 10.9 drives per game – exactly one less drive per game than in 2000. Fewer, longer runs are a solid recipe for close matches, especially offense when those runs are packed with runs and quarterbacks behind the line.
This mix of conservatism and aggression ensures close scores and compelling finishes. Teams play it safe most of the way, making short passes to avoid mid-air turnovers and running the ball to take advantage of the two high-security looks they see more often. But when they’re behind and have to make a late pass, the offensive teams don’t hesitate to use all the shortcomings Walter Camp has gifted them.
If these trends continue, there is no reason to wait for close games to end. The lack of scoring can result in unexciting gameplay early in the games – but if that means tight scores in the late fourth quarter and record-breaking competition volume on the final drive, that seems like a trade-off. worth doing.
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