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Let’s not call Chiefs-Rams a sign of a new era in the NFL just yet

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The NFL is setting offensive records in 2018, and the big game on the big stage has made the pundits think a big change is coming.

Kansas City Chiefs v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

After the Los Angeles Rams defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 54-51 on Monday Night Football, sportswriters are rushing to write about the “new” NFL — heavy on offense, and light on defense.

Let’s face it: there’s nothing like a primetime game that had the third-largest number of points scored in NFL history to excite the imagination of a sportswriter.

“The Future of the NFL Is Here, and It Looks Exactly Like Rams-Chiefs” exclaimed our Chorus sister site The Ringer in an article by Rodger Sherman. Monday’s game, wrote Sherman, will go down as a classic and reveals where the league is heading.

Football is changing. Getting better, really—just saying “change” implies that the differences in the game are neutral, whereas Monday night’s spectacle was clearly a more enjoyable viewing experience than almost anything that has come in the past. The NFL has recently been accused of providing a lukewarm product with stagnating ratings. That’s not a problem anymore. Monday night will go down as the game that encapsulates these changes, the birth of a better football.

“Rams-Chiefs was ‘the new NFL’ in its most spectacular form yet” exclaimed The Washington Post in an article by Mark Maske. Maske said that the Monday Night Football game was everything the NFL wanted and expected.

The passing numbers have been staggering. The points have piled up at record rates. Defensive players have complained that the rules have been tweaked to make their jobs nearly impossible. And that’s just fine with the NFL. Offense sells. TV ratings are up. Fans seem pleased.

“Rams-Chiefs Broke the NFL for Good, So What Happens Next?” asked Sports Illustrated’s Conor Orr in his article this week. Orr predicted an offseason bloodbath, as owners try to find players and coaches who can recreate what the NFL presented on Monday night.

Think of all the political machinations and red tape that have gone into creating something like we saw on Monday Night Football. All of the rule changes. All of the subtle winks and nods to the fantasy football crowd. The arms-wide-open stance as the legal sportsbooks start rolling in. Think of all the strides in health and exercise science. Everyone maximizing their potential. Everyone being bigger and faster and stronger than they’ve ever been. The landscape was ripe for a game that could facilitate a fireworks grand finale every week, on every play, in every stadium. Monday will be remembered as the night that changed everything.

Here on our own pages, Arrowhead Pride user horsepire recently wrote an article making a compelling argument that based on Football Outsiders DVOA ratings, many more of the league’s best offensive teams were likely to make the playoffs.

Barring a radical shakeup in the second half, only three top 10 defenses will make the playoffs: Chicago, Minnesota, and Houston. The next best odds belong to Seattle, which has just a 34% chance to make the playoffs. Baltimore is next, at 24%. Most of the best defenses in the NFL are staying home.

We could go on, but you get the point: the NFL will never look the same.

Or will it?

I’m not prepared to say that all of the articles I’ve referenced here are wrong. Any of them — or all of them — could be exactly right. We could very easily be seeing the birth of a new NFL — one that might be more exciting and fan-friendly.

But one of the things I have learned in the 61 years I’ve spent on the third rock from the Sun is to not get too excited when sportswriters start raiding the adjective locker. I always remember the sign the football coach at my junior high had posted in the locker room: “Often an All-American is made by a long run, a weak defense, and a poet in the press box.”

So when the prose gets too over-the-top, I often stop and wonder: am I getting facts or hyperbole?

The other thing I’ve learned in 61 years is that if you’re trying to figure out what’s going on, it’s always better to take the long view.

A few weeks ago, I happened to edit an article written by Matt Lane of the AP Nerd Squad, and inserted a table to support a point he was making about the big offensive numbers the NFL is generating in 2018.

NFL Offense through Week 7, 2017-2018

Year Points PCmp PAtt PCmp% PYds PTD PRtg RAtt RYds RY/A TD
2017 4638 4561 7254 62.9 47888 320 86.4 5636 23148 4.1 143
2018 5146 4985 7682 64.9 54136 374 91.4 5462 23611 4.3 171
Change 11.0% 9.3% 5.9% 3.2% 13.0% 16.9% 5.8% -3.1% 2.0% 4.9% 19.6%

That’s exactly the kind of data that sportswriters have been looking at to support their contention this is a new NFL we’re seeing in 2018.

But a few weeks later — and looking a bit further into the past — a somewhat different picture is visible.

NFL Offense, 2009-2018

Year Pts/Gm Yds/Ply PPly Pct PTDs/Gm RTDs/Gm PNY/A RY/A Score Pct Pts/Drive
2018 24.2 5.7 55.5% 1.8 0.8 6.6 4.4 37.5% 2.05
2017 21.7 5.3 53.9% 1.4 0.7 6.1 4.1 33.8% 1.78
2016 22.8 5.5 55.9% 1.5 0.9 6.4 4.2 35.6% 1.91
2015 22.8 5.5 55.4% 1.6 0.7 6.4 4.1 34.3% 1.84
2014 22.6 5.4 54.5% 1.6 0.7 6.4 4.2 34.1% 1.83
2013 23.4 5.4 54.5% 1.6 0.8 6.2 4.2 33.8% 1.81
2012 22.8 5.4 54.0% 1.5 0.8 6.2 4.3 33.7% 1.79
2011 22.2 5.5 53.5% 1.5 0.8 6.3 4.3 32.8% 1.74
2010 22.0 5.3 53.4% 1.5 0.8 6.2 4.2 32.4% 1.74
2009 21.5 5.3 52.9% 1.4 0.8 6.2 4.2 31.8% 1.72

As we see here, scoring is indeed up in the NFL when compared to 2017 — but in 2017, the NFL teams scored fewer points per game than they had since 2009. That made the 2018 increase look bigger than it really is.

Many of these statistics have similar issues — they look like big changes when compared to 2017, but are not nearly as big when you compare them to the last ten seasons. 2017 represented a step backward in many of these stats, so comparing 2018 to 2017 alone can give a distorted picture.

Again... that isn’t saying that the sportswriters raving about the 2018 season are flat-out wrong. It’s saying that the offensive numbers might not be as “staggering” as we first thought.

For what it’s worth, I think Conor Orr made a good point in his Sports Illustrated article. If one of the offensive powerhouses that everybody is talking about — the Chiefs, the Rams, the Saints — wins the Super Bowl, we could indeed see owners and GMs try to catch up with them; it could easily be the beginning of a trend.

And as horsepire noted, it’s indeed likely that the teams in the 2018 postseason will tend to be stronger on offense than on defense. But that doesn’t mean that one of those strong defensive teams couldn’t make a deep run — perhaps even win the trophy in Atlanta come February.

If that happens, owners and GMs could have an entirely different point of emphasis in the next offseason.

And then there’s Chiefs head coach Andy Reid — seen as one of the coaches driving this offensive explosion the sportswriters are talking about — who was asked about it during his media session on Tuesday.

“The new part of this is that there are no rules,” he said. “The rules like, ‘You have to be in this position’ — the old box you were in before — are just different. You’re spreading the field. You’re running option plays. There’s nobody on the field in an eligible position that isn’t a viable option — whether it’s the pass game or the run game. It puts a tremendous amount of pressure on defenses right now. You’re seeing that.”

Reid — who is noted for being unafraid to use high school and college concepts in his offensive schemes — also said that part of what’s driving all of it is the availability of players who can play in a wide-open scheme.

“You’ve seen it — and you’re seeing it — at the college level and the high school level,” Reid said. “The great thing about getting offensive players [from] there is that they’ve all had opportunities to throw the ball, catch the ball, pass-protect and so on, which fits a little more into what the NFL game has been for a number of years.”

Still, Reid said that he expects defenses to adjust — as they always do.

“The way the league works is that defenses will adjust,” he explained. “They’ll catch up to it, and the offenses will have to do something else. That’s just how this thing rolls. But right now, it’s a little bit more of an upper hand for the offense.”

If the NFL is indeed transitioning to wide-open offenses, the defenses will naturally try to find ways to stop it. And as the saying goes, in the old battle between warhead and armor, warhead always wins.

But that doesn’t mean armor doesn’t still undergo development and win a few battles along the way.

Monday night’s game was thrilling to watch; there’s no question about that. But the reality is that whether it will become the new “normal” in the NFL remains to be seen.

Like Andy Reid always says... we’ll just have to see how it goes.