I've been thinking a bit about the state of the game right now.
Let's compare some stats of 2018 (so far) with 1 year ago as well as 10 years ago. Note that these stats are per-team-per-game:
||2018 (through Week 3)
We're seeing a 21.8 yard increase in offensive yardage over last year, a number which grew only 4 yards over the previous decade. (Going back even further, the number was 317.7 in 1998, so a 13.7 yard increase from 1998 to 2017).
We see that the growth is entirely in passing yardage. In fact, rushing yardage is down 3.3 yards per game, accelerating the existing downward trend, in which it decreased 6.3 yards between 2008 and 2017.
The offensive yardage jump, if it held for a full season, would be fairly unprecedented in the modern NFL era. I did not do an exhaustive comparison, but in some off-the-cuff peeks at the numbers, it seems the last time we had this big of a jump in offensive yardage production in a short time, it was the transition between the late '70s and the Bill Walsh/Don Coryell/Dan Marino mid '80s (ie. the effect of the Mel Blount Rule). But that jump occurred over a few years, not one.
So, at least through 3 weeks, the game has received a massive tilt in the offensive direction. But do offenses always have the edge early and come back down? That, I don't have numbers on. What I do have, though, is the Wayback Machine's version of the 2017 page after 6 games last year, in which the offensive yardage per game was 335.0. So there was some offensive production decline between 6 games and the full season, but it was still relatively close to the final number. Similarly, in 2008, after two games, offenses were at 330.5, just 3.3 yards above where they would finish on the season. So, at least in the years we're looking at, yardage per game drops a little between the early season and the finish, but nothing that would suggest that the huge jump we've seen in 2018 is something we should expect to be erased.
Along with the jump in offensive production, we also have a boost in penalties. Not nearly as exaggerated as the offensive jump, but still a very significant jump (for reference, 2017 was essentially identical to 2016, which had the same number of penalties per game, for 0.2 more yards). Penalties have been growing at about 1.3 yards per game, and so a nearly 6 yard jump this year is quite a hike. Remember, these are per team per game, so double those numbers for the total number of penalties and penalty yards in a single game between the two teams combined.
So, bottom line, what we have watched through three weeks of the season is a disproportional increase in penalties, and a stupidly disproportional increase in offensive production. Because these increases are so out of whack with the pre-existing trends, there may be an equally disproportional correction in the coming weeks. But there isn't any readily apparent reason to expect one. It's something for us to keep an eye on, but the point is to illustrate what game you've been watching this season so far.
Some other thoughts:
Watching the evolution of the roughing-the-passer call has been fascinating.
Let's establish a baseline of understanding. The way the rule is currently written, this is a penalty, period:
People have been highly resistant to this change, but usually by just screaming "bullsh*t" and "bad call" rather than acknowledging that, in fact, the rule has changed and this is exact enforcement of that rule. (The NFL has not helped this by also making a couple of questionable enforcements of the new rule, and not backing down from them.) Just like how Night Train Lane spent the '50s and early '60s clothesline tackling people, then after 1963, anyone that did that would be flagged. It was allowed and it is not allowed anymore.
Likewise, a pass rusher landing their body weight on the quarterback is not allowed anymore. Period. Deal with it. Now with that understood, conversation about whether it is right or not can happen, but among football fans in general, conversation remains in the "denial" stage that such a change has happened.
In such an environment, some players have already shown us a way forward. Von Miller said even before the season that he goes for the ball, and always has. Khalil Mack has recorded strip-sacks in 3 straight games. Clearly, the elite pass rushers have clued in on how to work in this new rule environment. Play the ball, not the body.
Clay Matthews is a play-the-body guy, and is going to have to learn.
The increasing quarterback-driven (to the exclusion of anything else mattering) nature of NFL football has been at odds with my enjoyment of the game for some time. I've been ranting about "PolianBall" for almost a decade now, a name I still cling to as too few have identified it as a historical turning point like the "Mel Blount Rule", and those that have have not produced a name to codify it in NFL history. But that discontent is feeling like it's reaching something of a tipping point, and has me questioning my enjoyment of the game like never before.
I know I'm particularly sensitive to the quarterback's oversized role in an NFL team's fate this week, as in one hand I have the 49ers with Garoppolo's ACL tear seemingly ending their season in September, and in the other hand I have... Blake Bortles. But still. As we see in the stats this year, the game is tipping towards passing at an incredibly-increasing rate. At what point is a football team just a QB? How are we already so close to that point, and somehow finding ways to push even closer to it?
Vikings running backs combined for four carries in their blowout loss to Buffalo. Four. What kind of gameplan is that? (One in which quarterback is the only thing that matters. I guess there's still a little hope for the rest of the guys.)
Kerryon Johnson broke the Lions' 100-yard-rusher drought streak, yet LeGarrette Blount got the same 16-carry workload Johnson did in the same game, and was much less effective.
Josh Rosen takes over for Bradford as the Cardinals starting QB. Let's remember all of this next spring, when coaches with new 1st round quarterbacks try to tell us how they're going to sit behind the recently-acquired veteran seat warmer. (Seriously though, who had Sam Bradford getting benched before getting injured?)