The NFL’s 2020 season will go down as the most unique in league history, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing most teams to keep fans out of their stadiums and players and coaches to completely change the way they do business.
But it was an entertaining season, and the play on the field didn’t seem to be affected much by the new rules or the elimination of the offseason program and preseason games.
Let’s put a bow on the 2020 regular season by looking back at some of the records that were set, the trends that emerged, and my choices for individual awards:
There are two ways to look at the season — either offenses were really good and weren’t affected by all the changes, or defenses were really bad. Because offenses moved the ball and scored like never before.
▪ Scoring was at an all-time high — a record 49.6 combined points per game, up from 45.6 last year. This season saw a record in touchdowns — 1,473, or 102 more than the previous high and 141 more than last year. And the league set a record for total yards — 191,367, or about 747.5 combined yards per game.
▪ Passing numbers exploded in 2020. There was a record set in league-wide passer rating (93.6, up from 90.4 last year). A record for completion percentage (65.2). And passing touchdowns (847). And completions (45.9 per game).
▪ Quarterbacks were never safer with the football. The 395 interceptions were the fewest in the post-merger era and marked the first time that the NFL had fewer than 400 in a season. The interception percentage — on just 2.2 percent of pass attempts — was also the lowest of all time. The 665 turnovers were the fewest since the 1970 merger (save for the strike-shortened 1982 season).
▪ Teams are running the ball the least in history — the seven lowest-rushing seasons have all come in the last seven years — but teams are more efficient at it than ever. The 532 rushing touchdowns this season were the most all time and the first time the NFL had more than 500. The rushing average of 4.41 was second all time, behind last season’s 4.42.
▪ Offenses were never more efficient in key situations, as well. The third-down conversion rate of 41.6 percent was an all-time high. The fourth-down conversion rate of 55.0 percent ranked second all time, and coaches were historically aggressive. The 658 fourth-down attempts were by far the most ever, with 595 last season.
▪ Teams also finished off in the red zone like never before. The league-wide touchdown rate broke 60 percent (61.2) for the first time since red-zone stats were first kept in 1995. The Packers were the first team in history to crack 80 percent.
▪ The only area in which scoring dipped was with kickers. The 92.9 percent success rate on extra points was the lowest since the NFL moved the extra point back to the 15-yard line for the 2015 season.
One reason that can probably explain the offensive explosion — penalties were significantly down this season, particularly with regard to offensive holding, yet defensive pass interference penalties were way up (numbers via NFLPenalties.com).
▪ It’s unclear if the NFL sent a directive to the officials to throw fewer flags, but it sure seems like it. The NFL had 2,876 accepted penalties for 24,914 yards this season, or 575 fewer penalties and 4,509 fewer yards than just a year ago. On a per-game basis, the NFL had 13.5 penalties per game last season, and just 11.2 this season.
▪ This season was a major course correction, because penalties had been getting out of control. In the 43 seasons since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, the 2015-19 seasons ranked in the top 10 for penalties per game. The 2020 season ranked as the second-fewest, higher only than 2008.
And this season saw the seventh-fewest penalty yards per game (97.3). Last season saw the eighth-most (114.5).
▪ The area with the biggest drop-off was offensive holding. The 2015-19 seasons averaged 701.2 accepted holding calls per year, for 6,713.6 yards. In 2020, the NFL had 459 accepted holding penalties for 4,417 yards.
▪ Yet despite penalty numbers being way down, pass interference calls increased. The 308 accepted penalties were a record, 39 more than a season ago. The 4,922 yards were also a record, up 501 from last season.
The NFL had approximately 1.2 million fans in 2020, compared with about 17 million in 2019.
▪ Teams that had fans at all eight games: Cowboys, Jaguars, Chiefs, Dolphins, Browns, Colts. The Cowboys had 219,021 fans this season, accounting for 18 percent of the league’s attendance. Fourteen teams did not have any fans at games.
▪ Home-field advantage was a myth in 2020. For the first time, home teams were under .500 (127-128-1), down from .518 last season and .602 in 2018.
▪ But the teams that traditionally have home-field advantages still did well — the Packers, Steelers, Seahawks, and Bills went 7-1 at home, while the Saints, Chiefs, and Colts went 6-2 (as did the Rams and Browns). No team went 8-0 at home, but that isn’t unusual. In the last six seasons, only two teams have gone undefeated at home — the 2018 Patriots and 2015 Panthers.
I don’t have a vote for the NFL’s end-of-season awards, but if I did, here is what my ballot would look like:
MVP: Aaron Rodgers, Packers. Not an easy choice over Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Derrick Henry, but Rodgers has the best résumé. His 121.5 passer rating is the second-best in NFL history (to his own 122.5). Rodgers is the first quarterback in NFL history to lead the league in TD percentage (9.1 percent of throws) and interception percentage (1.0) in the same season. And his team went 13-3 and earned a No. 1 seed.
Offensive Player of the Year: Henry, Titans. I like to split this award from MVP, and Henry had a historically great year in a pass-happy era. He is the eighth player to crack 2,000 rushing yards (2,027), and just the 12th to lead the league in rushing in back-to-back years. He added 17 touchdowns, rushed for 5.4 yards per carry, and had three 200-yard games.
Defensive Player of the Year: T.J. Watt, Steelers. Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard’s 10 interceptions were mighty impressive, and Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald was a wrecking ball once again. But Watt led the NFL with 15 sacks and 39.5 knockdowns (10 more than anyone else), with two forced fumbles and an interception.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Justin Herbert, Chargers. Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson had an incredible season, but I go with the equally-impressive quarterback. Herbert set rookie records with 31 touchdowns, 289.1 yards per game, and eight 300-yard games.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Jeremy Chinn, Panthers. Washington defensive end Chase Young had 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles, and looks to be a superstar. But Chinn, the 64th overall pick, truly filled up the stat sheet. He led the Panthers with 117 tackles and had two forced fumbles, two fumble recovery touchdowns, an interception, and a sack.
Most Improved Player: Allen, Bills. He certainly deserves an award for his amazing performance this season. Allen threw for 4,544 yards (up from 3,089 last season), completed 69.2 percent of his passes (up from 58.8), and combined for 45 touchdowns (up from 29). Not even the most devoted Bills fan could have seen this coming.
Coach of the Year: Kevin Stefanski, Browns. Really wanted to give it to Packers coach Matt LaFleur, who has a 26-6 record in two years and guided the No. 1 scoring offense this season. Andy Reid and Sean McDermott are also worthy. But it’s impossible to overlook the job done by Stefanski, who as a first-year coach, operating in unusual COVID-19 circumstances, took a 6-10 team from a year ago and turned the Browns — the Browns! — into an 11-5 playoff team. He also cut Baker Mayfield’s interceptions from 21 to 8.
Assistant Coach of the Year: Brian Daboll, Bills. The work he has done with Allen over the past three years is remarkable, and the Bills had the No. 2 scoring offense this season. I will be shocked if he doesn’t get a head coaching job.
Executive of the Year: Chris Grier, Dolphins. The Dolphins missed the playoffs, but Grier’s tear-down and rebuild has been impressive. The Dolphins went 10-6 in Year 2, and had the league’s No. 1 scoring defense for most of the season. They are also in an enviable position this offseason, with a ton of cap space and the Nos. 3 and 36 draft picks from the Texans (in addition to their own). The only question is whether Tua Tagovailoa can develop into a franchise quarterback.
Caserio has lots of managing to do
Nick Caserio finally got the general manager job he has long coveted, but he’s walking into a hornet’s nest in Houston.
First, he has to win over a fan base that wasn’t thrilled by his hiring. The Texans just went through seven unsuccessful seasons of the Patriot Way with Bill O’Brien, and so far the fans have not been receptive to the team going right back to the Patriots well with Caserio. The reaction has been so negative that the team slipped it to the Houston Chronicle that, no, Josh McDaniels won’t be a candidate for head coach.
Second, Caserio has to smooth over the situation with star quarterback Deshaun Watson, who reportedly is furious that he didn’t have input in the decision, even though owner Cal McNair allegedly told Watson he would. Watson just signed a six-year, $176 million deal in September, and reportedly is talking to teammates about maybe requesting a trade.
A trade isn’t out of the question if Watson simply wants out — it wouldn’t wreck the Texans’ salary cap because most of Watson’s guaranteed money is tied up in future base salaries, which the new team would absorb. But the Texans have no interest in dealing their 25-year-old superstar, and have two months to get him to cool down, since they can’t even execute a trade until the new league year starts on March 17. I highly doubt Watson is going anywhere.
But Caserio does need to figure out what to do with the team’s other superstar, defensive end J.J. Watt. He’s still arguably the Texans’ best defensive player, and led the team with five sacks this season. But Watt will be 32 in March, has had a few injury-plagued seasons in the past, and will be making $17.5 million next season in the final year of his contract. Watt’s contract has no more dead money, meaning the Texans can trade or release him with no cap penalty.
Watt is the team’s most popular player, but probably wouldn’t mind playing for a championship contender next season. Caserio may need to find a way to gracefully move on from the greatest player in Texans history.
A few notable playoff streaks:
▪ With the Browns (17 seasons) and Buccaneers (12) making the playoffs, the Jets now have the NFL’s longest playoff drought at 10 seasons and counting. Next on the list are the Cardinals, Bengals, and Broncos at five seasons.
▪ The longest droughts without a playoff win (before Saturday’s games) are the Bengals (30 seasons), Lions (29), Bills (25), Browns (23), Dolphins (20), Raiders and Buccaneers (18), Washington (15), and the Bears (10).
▪ The Cardinals organization has gone 73 straight seasons without a championship. The team’s last title came in 1947, when they were the Chicago Cardinals and the NFL had 10 teams.
A total of 480 players went on the COVID-IR list between Aug. 1 and Jan. 3, an average of 15 per team. Of those, only 256 were positive cases, and the rest were close contacts. But some teams handled COVID-19 better than others. The Ravens led the league with 42 players going on COVID-IR, thanks to their outbreak caused by a strength coach not wearing his mask. The Raiders had 37 players go on the list, and the Browns had 28. At the other end, Washington only had two players go on COVID-IR all season, showing how seriously the organization took the virus as coach Ron Rivera battled cancer. The Seahawks had four players, and the Jets five. The Patriots had the 19th-most with 11 players … The Ravens rushed for 404 yards last week, giving them 3,071 for the season and making them the only team in history to rush for 3,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. Lamar Jackson (1,005 yards) also owns two of the three 1,000-yard rushing seasons by quarterbacks … Ryan Tannehill of the Titans became just the fourth quarterback in history to produce a passer rating of 106.0 or better in consecutive seasons. The others: Drew Brees (2018-20), Russell Wilson (2018-19), and Aaron Rodgers (2011-12) … The Broncos found a way to fire John Elway gently, allowing him to stay on as executive vice president in an overseer role. But the reality is they’re taking away control of the roster and giving it to a yet-to-be-hired GM. Five years without the playoffs under Elway’s watch is unacceptable in Denver, and he hasn’t been able to find a quarterback … Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is likely going to keep Doug Pederson as coach for next season, but he should reevaluate that in light of Pederson’s questionable coaching decisions in Week 17. Several Eagles players were reportedly upset that Jalen Hurts was taken out of the game, and it may have significantly sabotaged Pederson’s ability to command the locker room … Not surprised to see Dolphins offensive coordinator Chan Gailey resign this past week. Based on comments made by him and others this season, I got the feeling he wasn’t thrilled to have Tua Tagovailoa forced on him this season instead of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Noticeably, Gailey’s resignation came a day after GM Chris Grier publicly anointed Tagovailoa the starter for next season … I learned in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this past week that Falcons owner Arthur Blank “insists on monitoring his coach’s postgame press conference in person” and “holds a meeting with said coach the day after every game.” What coach in his right mind would want to work for an overbearing boss like that? … The Browns were in trouble Sunday even before they lost Stefanski to COVID-19. They are 6-44 all time in Pittsburgh since 1970, and have lost 17 in a row … An ignominious season for the Jaguars: They became the second team in NFL history, joining the 2001 Panthers, to start a season 1-0 and end it 1-15.