As chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, it’s Rich McKay’s job to accentuate the positive and paint the league in a favorable light.
At this past week’s owners meetings in New York, McKay cited stats such as the league-wide passer rating (88.2) and completions per game (44.4) to highlight the health of the game, as well as the league’s parity.
“The most important metric we have in football is competitive balance, and right now that’s about as good as it’s been in a long, long time,” McKay said. “We like the fact that we’ve got 14 games that featured last-minute, last-possession, game-winning drives. We’ve got a crazy stat that we have 22 teams that have three or more wins through six weeks. That’s just a very unusual stat for us.”
McKay, though, is burying the lede. For the second straight season, offensive production is down significantly compared with the past decade. And though some fans may prefer defensive battles, the NFL judges its product by offense, under the guise of points = excitement. The NFL has been consistently tweaking its rules over the past two decades to accentuate quarterback play and increase offensive production. But the game has gone backward the last two years.
Comparing this year with Weeks 1-6 of every other season since the 1970 merger:
▪ The average NFL game averages 43.4 points — essentially the same as last year (43.3), but down from 50.8 in 2020. These past two seasons have seen the lowest scoring output since 2009.
▪ Each game this season averages 4.6 touchdowns, the fewest since 2006 and down from 5.8 in 2020.
▪ The league-wide passer rating is 88.2, down from 95.2 in 2021 and 94.1 in 2020.
▪ Yards per pass attempt are at 6.93, the lowest since 2006.
▪ Each game averages 472.5 passing yards, down from 545.2 in 2018 and the fewest since 2010.
The numbers are clear — the games may be competitive, but only because neither team is scoring. In Week 6, there were 25 teams that scored 21 or fewer points, the most ever, per OptaStats. And that was with two teams on byes.
It would be easy to point a finger at all the changes to the practice rules in the offseason and training camp that have limited full contact, but those rules were also mostly in place in 2020 and 2021, when offensive production was at its historical peak.
It may just be that the NFL is in a transition era at quarterback, with Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers not playing to help boost the numbers. Injuries also have been a killer — Kyler Murray hasn’t played all year, Joe Burrow hasn’t been himself because of a calf injury, and now Justin Fields, Deshaun Watson, and Anthony Richardson, among others, are battling injuries.
A handful of solid quarterbacks are also struggling. Burrow’s passer rating of 79.8 is down from 100.8 last year. Jalen Hurts is at 84.7 after compiling a 101.5 last year. Patrick Mahomes’s 95.7 is a career low. Jimmy Garoppolo’s 82.6 is down from 103 last year with the 49ers.
So, while the games have been close — an average of 10 games per week within one score, and three per week within a field goal, per McKay — the NFL would prefer to see crisper offense and more points.
What McKay didn’t sugarcoat was the new kickoff rule, which allows for a touchback on any fair catch inside the 25. Kickers have responded by simply booting the ball through the end zone, and the touchback percentage entering Week 7 was 79.3, by far the highest in league history. The previous high through six weeks was 68 percent in 2019.
The new rule came in an effort to reduce concussions, and in that sense it has been wildly successful, as the NFL said there has been just one concussion on kickoffs all season. But McKay said no one is happy that only 1 out of 5 kickoffs is being returned.
“Nobody in the league would say that’s successful,” McKay said. “I can’t say we expected it to go this far . . . We’ve achieved the one thing we needed to achieve, which is take a play that had a high collision rate and reduce the concussions that we’re having on that play. But we’ve done it again by making the play a little more ceremonial than it should be.”
The competition committee’s goal next offseason is to find a way to increase the number of kickoff returns but reduce the number of high-speed collisions. The NFL passed the kickoff/fair catch rule only on a one-year basis “to put pressure on ourselves to come back and reinvent that play,” McKay said.
no luck at QB
Peyton Manning may have left a curse on the Colts after they released him in 2012.
The guy who replaced him (Andrew Luck), supposed to be one of the greatest talents of his generation, retired at 29 because of injuries. The Colts have had seven different Week 1 starters in the last seven years — Scott Tolzien, Luck, Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz, Matt Ryan, and Anthony Richardson.
Now Richardson, the latest rookie quarterback to show promise for the Colts, had his season cut short after four games after suffering a sprained AC joint. After giving it two weeks, Richardson and the Colts decided this past week to undergo surgery and end his season.
“Can’t believe that tackle caused it,” owner Jim Irsay said of the hit against the Titans on Oct. 8. “But we’ve seen great things out of him already on tape . . . It hurts, but you march on.”
The decision was swayed by the Colts’ experience with Luck, who initially avoided surgery, but his shoulder didn’t improve. The Colts are in the first year of a rebuild and don’t need Richardson to be a hero.
“After going through what we went through with Andrew Luck, it’s tough,” Irsay said. “We feel there’s every reason to believe he can come back and be all of who he can be. We saw what we have in the future there with the playing time he had. I just was hoping for this great race between him and [C.J.] Stroud for rookie of the year. I really see those two guys being the future of the league.”
Bad time for
Just as Justin Fields was beginning to play well, his Bears career may have been pulled out from under him.
Fields suffered the worst possible finger injury in last Sunday’s loss to the Vikings, dislocating the thumb on his throwing hand, making it tough for him to grip the football.
If he were an established quarterback on a regular team, Fields would likely be out for a few weeks then return to the lineup. But this is no regular situation. The 1-5 Bears hold the top two picks in next year’s NFL Draft — their own pick is No. 2, and they own the 0-6 Panthers’ pick, which is No. 1. That puts them squarely in line to draft generational quarterback prospect Caleb Williams, especially since Fields has struggled with his performance and maturity in three seasons.
Fields will avoid surgery, but it will be fascinating to see if the Bears tell Fields to take his time returning. If they keep losing games with rookie backup Tyson Bagent, or whomever they trot out under center, will the Bears just shut down Fields for the season? It is certainly possible that Fields has played his final snaps for Chicago.
It’s a shame the injury happened now, with Fields finally playing well — he threw four touchdown passes in a close loss to the Broncos then four more in a blowout win over the Commanders. The injury may have changed Fields’s career trajectory.
▪ Roger Goodell signed a contract extension that takes him through March 2027, when he’ll be 68, and the owners are starting to prepare for life after Goodell. One possibility entails splitting his job into two, and having a commissioner of football and a CEO of the business.
“We have to continue to look if we’re going to bifurcate the position eventually where have a CEO and a commissioner,” Colts owner Jim Irsay said. “It’s a forever changing [business] model, so we’ll see what happens with how we decide if we’re going to opt out on any of the [broadcast] deals after seven years and just see what direction is best for the league.”
Irsay said the NFL is targeting gross revenues of $50 billion per year (it is believed to be more than $20 billion now), and wants to get there by expanding internationally, creating more Hollywood content through its partnership with Skydance Media, and opportunities in gaming.
▪ The NFL also wants to eliminate the “hip-drop” tackle, which the league said has an injury rate that is 25 times higher than a normal tackle. It is often similar to a horse-collar tackle in that the defender grabs the ball carrier from behind and drags him down at the waist. The tackler often lands on the ball carrier’s legs, resulting in knee and ankle injuries.
The problem, though, is defining the hip-drop tackle. It’s hard to outlaw an act that doesn’t have an exact definition.
“It is an unforgiving behavior and one that we need to try to define and get out of the game,” NFL executive vice president Jeff Miller said. “There’s a lot of work that’s going into this, because it doesn’t really matter what we do unless we can define it.”
▪ The Guardian Caps that all running backs, tight ends, linebackers, and offensive and defensive linemen were required to wear during training camp practices were a “substantial success,” according to NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills. He said concussions were at a seven-year low this training camp (numbers not provided), and that the positions that were required to wear the extra foam padding saw concussions drop by 46 percent compared with their three-year average prior to the introduction of Guardian Caps in 2022. The positions not required to wear them — quarterbacks, receivers, and defensive backs — saw their concussion rates increase by about 50 percent compared with their previous four-year average.
“What that tells us is the reduction that we’re seeing with the Guardian here is not just because teams are practicing less or there’s less contact. There really is a substantial benefit,” Sills said.
The next step for the NFL is figuring out how to implement the technology into the game-day helmets.
Reporting by the rules
The Patriots had a whopper of an injury report this past week, featuring 21 players limited or out of practice.
It’s possible that they are more injured than any other NFL team. Or this could be Bill Belichick trying to create confusion by following injury reporting rules to the letter of the law.
Technically, if a player participates in one fewer snap than normal, he would be considered “limited” in practice. By loading up the injury report — legally, mind you — the Patriots are able to mask which players are truly hurt. This has been a common tactic from Belichick in the past.
“The Patriots do not break any injury reporting rules. They do clearly play ‘hide the bacon,’” said Dr. David Chao, previously the Chargers’ team doctor for 17 seasons. “They’re just very liberal with their use of ‘limited’ and ‘questionable,’ which is not illegal. They follow the rules to a T. And that went when they were winning with Tom [Brady], as well. We tracked it. He always leads the league in ‘questionables.’”
Asking for the impossible
Caleb Williams, the Southern Cal quarterback and clear leader to be the No. 1 pick next April, is out of his mind if he thinks any of these recent demands are going to stick.
One rumor spreading is that Williams will only play for five teams — Cowboys, Raiders, Vikings, Giants, or 49ers — or otherwise will return to USC in 2024. The other is that Williams supposedly is telling teams that he’ll only come out next year if he is promised an equity share in the team as part of his rookie contract.
First, it’s highly doubtful he will return to college in 2024 instead of playing in the NFL, no matter which team drafts him. Yes, Williams might be able to make more money in college next year, but that’s short-term thinking. He could get injured or play poorly, which would hurt his future earnings. And the NFL draft system and slotted rookie pay scale isn’t going anywhere, so Williams will want to get his career clock started so he can get to free agency as soon as possible.
Second, the idea of Williams getting equity in a team is laughable. The greatest quarterbacks on the planet, Brady and Aaron Rodgers, couldn’t get equity in their deals, and it’s never happened in NFL history. But Williams, an unproven rookie, will be the one to kick the door open? Uh, no. Not to mention, it would violate NFL rules, as the rookie wage scale is spelled out explicitly in the collective bargaining agreement. Williams’s deal at No. 1 will be roughly worth $40 million over four years. He can huff and puff all he wants, but that’s what he’s getting.
Derek Carr was an emotional wreck in Thursday night’s loss to the Jaguars, throwing little fits on the field and blaming his teammates and coaches in his news conference for negative plays. “I’ve been showing my emotion a little bit too much on my sleeve,” Carr said afterward. “I kind of got to chill out, and that’s me holding myself accountable. Because that’s not going to help anything.” He’d better, because what he’s doing is a terrible way to build leadership when you’re the new guy in the locker room. Carr has $30 million fully guaranteed next year, but the Saints may start thinking of ways to get out of it . . . Patrick Mahomes said he wants to follow Brady into ownership of an NFL team. To which I say: Of course, especially if Mahomes can get the 70 percent discount that Raiders owner Mark Davis is offering Brady . . . The Raiders won last week to improve to 3-3, yet Davante Adams was still complaining about only getting two targets. Josh McDaniels better keep winning games or that locker room seems ready to implode . . . Rams coach Sean McVay is expecting a baby any day, and he shot down a report that he would miss a game if the baby came on a Sunday. “I’m not going to miss a game,” he said. “My son knows better than to come during a game.”
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.