Early this season, the NFL looked like a video game on rookie mode. Now, with the weather cooling, the defenses are beginning to fight back.
When the Rams and Chiefs lit the football world (and the internet) on fire with that epic 54-51 instant classic shootout on ESPN’s Monday Night Football in Week 11, it also served to spark an immediate and altogether predictable debate: Had finally the NFL gone too far in crafting rules and taking steps to emphasize offense and encourage scoring?
Soaring TV ratings be damned, critics questioned if two teams scoring 50 points in the same regulation game for the first time in league history meant there could be too much of a good thing? Had the era of the defenseless-receiver rule and other measures helped usher in the era of defenseless football? Could it all potentially lead in the long term to the lessening of the game’s entertainment value if such shootouts became the norm?
Some football purists seemed to take real offense to all the offense in 2018, a season that through Week 13 was setting new highs for the league in key categories such as points (47.8), yards (718.4) and passing touchdowns (3.5) per game.
As the playoffs near, the presence of so many quality quarterbacks combined with the home-field advantage that high-scoring teams like the Saints, Chiefs and Rams possess could produce another points-palooza this postseason.
Are we in store for 11 pass-happy playoff games similar to last year’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis, which was almost devoid of defense? And is this the best version of the NFL game?
“I think it’s going to be to the detriment of the game,’’ said Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy, the current NBC Sunday Night Football analyst who played quarterback in college and then made his NFL reputation on the defensive side of the ball. “Though that 54-51 game was very, very exciting, I think we’re losing something in the game if the mentality goes that way, and I think you’re seeing it change (toward that).’’
Of course we’ve kind of been here before in terms of NFL history, as Dungy well remembers, and still the game prospered and thrived. In 1978, in an effort to juice scoring, the league changed a number of rules to open up the passing game and make it harder to play pass coverage. The so-called “Mel Blount rule’’ added the illegal contact foul to the rule book, and gave receivers room to work beyond five yards past the line of scrimmage. Passing yards and scoring rose significantly right away, and for the most part began a 40-year trend of increases in both statistical categories. But there were no doubt critics who decried the death of defense back then, too.
“It goes back to how coaches and really ownership views things,’’ said Dungy, who in ’78 was a second-year Steelers defensive back. “In 1978 they made some changes to spark the passing game, and I remember (Steelers coach) Chuck Noll, he had us change from a defensive and running game-oriented philosophy to, ‘Hey, we’re going to throw the football,’ because the rules encouraged that. So now we unleashed (Terry) Bradshaw and (Lynn) Swann and (John) Stallworth and unleashed this tremendous passing game, and everybody was looking for that. And I think that’s what you’re getting now.
“(Raiders coach) Jon Gruden got criticized for trading Khalil Mack this year, but I think he sat there and looked at it and said, ‘You know what? The best defensive player maybe in football might not help me win as much as a couple of offensive weapons. So I’m going to trade this star player and stock up and we’re going to get some offensive weapons and we’re going to out-score people.’ Well if everyone takes that mentality, the game is going to change.’’
The root causes of this year’s increased offensive fireworks in the NFL is an issue that inspires varied opinions. But when scoring actually declined by almost five percent in 2017, the league’s competition committee identified a significant drop in illegal contact fouls (just 38, compared to 146 in 2014) and made that particular call a point of emphasis for this season. The instances of that penalty rose quickly early this season, and when combined with the player safety initiatives that focused on penalizing roughing the passer and using the helmet to initiate contact, a defender’s job has gotten undeniably tougher in 2018, thus aiding offenses.
In other words, when you can’t hit the quarterback or the receiver, the passing game is unsurprisingly going to tend to dominate.
“If you want to know why teams are playing more basic defenses, you’re not allowed to hit the quarterback and you’re not allowed to hit receivers any more,’’ said Matt Hasselbeck, the former longtime NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst. “So quarterbacks are definitely throwing balls and coaches are designing plays to throw balls into windows that once upon a time you couldn’t throw guys into those windows. In particular seam routes, skinny post routes, and hole shots against a Cover 2, those used to be very difficult throws to make. Now it’s not as difficult because you know the safety is not allowed to, quote or unquote, target the receiver, so you’re not afraid to coach it up, you’re not afraid to throw it.
“I sat in those competition committee meetings (in an advisory role) where defensive backs have said, ‘Hold up. How am I supposed to do my job?’ And from (committee chairman/Falcons CEO) Rich McKay to Mike Tomlin to Marvin Lewis, everybody, they’ve all stood up and said, ‘Listen the way football’s going, the safeties are not expected to make those plays. You basically have to just let them catch it and tag him down. That’s not a play you’re expected to make any more.’ So that is a different version of NFL passing football than we’ve seen.’’
Different to be sure, but it’s difficult to make the case that NFL fans don’t love it. ESPN got a season-high 11.3 overnight rating on the Rams-Chiefs scoring extravaganza, and team owners and the league office are never, ever worried about the possibility of too many points being scored. Offense draws eyeballs and drives interest, in ways that will never change in favor of the defense.
Alas, fantasy football wasn’t created with the ’85 Bears in mind.
“They have (tweaked the rules too far), but I think we all know people would rather watch a 51-50 game than a 10-3 game, because most people don’t want to watch punts,’’ said Michael Lombardi, the veteran NFL personnel executive who now works in the media for a variety of outlets. “The purist football fan like me, the 10-3 games intrigue me. But most people would rather watch scoring. But if it’s good football, people will like it, whether it’s offense or defense.
“That’s why I don’t think defense is dead. I think situational defense is still what matters. It’s not how many yards you give up. You’ve got to be good at red zone third downs, red zone period, in the two-minute drill, points at the end of the half. Those are the true measuring sticks with defense these days. If you’re not good in those situations, you’re going to get beat.’’
The prediction that defense will still have its day has been supported fairly well in the month since that memorable shootout in the Los Angeles Coliseum. While the snapshot taken right after the Rams-Chiefs game might have said that offense was predominant this season and the rules were out-of-whack in its favor, you probably noticed defense has made something of a strong comeback in subsequent weeks.
The Cowboys’ 13-10 upset of the high-octane Saints in Week 13 was the supreme counterbalance to the notion that offense rules, and this past Monday night’s 12-9 New Orleans road win at Carolina drew a 9.1 overnight rating for ESPN, its second-highest of the season. In Week 14, the Bears’ 15-6 defeat of the potent Rams in frosty Soldier Field was another high-profile blow struck against the “defense is dead’’ crowd.
“I loved it, loved it,’’ Dungy said of the Saints-Cowboys defensive battle. “I tweeted out before the game ‘I want to see if defense can still win. Can the Cowboys, who are playing excellent defense, can they really slow down the best offense in football?’ And they showed they can. We had an exciting, low-scoring game that the defense won the game. It was great to see that.’’
What’s behind the return of defense late this season despite rules that have incentivized the passing game? Would you believe the running game, which has had a re-birth in several NFL markets of late, as teams try to fix their own defensive issues with a little ball-control philosophy?
“Some of it starts with teams like Dallas getting back on track in their running game,’’ Hasselbeck said. “Against the Saints they came out and gave Ezekiel Elliiott all those touches and it helped their defense. Coaches around the league, (Minnesota’s) Mike Zimmer for example, he’s like, ‘Wait a second. What’s wrong with my defense? I know what’s wrong with my defense. It’s on the field too much, because my offensive coordinator is running the ball only 31 percent of the time. Hey, screw you, you’re gone (John DeFilippo). Who’s the next guy? (Kevin) Stefanski? How old are you? 36? No sweat, run the ball.’
“Coaches are saying, ‘I want to do what Bill Parcells used to do. I want to do what Ezekiel Elliott is doing. I want to do what the Ravens are doing with Lamar Jackson. I want to do what the Seahawks are doing.’ They do that and they help their defense and make their pass rushers fresher and quicker off the edge. It’s a little bit of a market correction and we’ve seen a few teams kind of get back to that running philosophy a little bit. Because in the early part of the year, every team was trying to be like the Chiefs, Rams and Bears. Now it’s back to our old-school ways, time of possession, run the football and help out our defense.’’
In the never-ending cat-and-mouse game of coaching adjustments in the NFL, offenses that were setting the pace for most of the season have struggled of late. The Rams, Saints, Patriots and Steelers have all had recent downturns in their offensive production as the regular season winds down. The pendulum could swing back in time for the playoffs, of course.
“That’s why I don’t necessarily buy into the argument that it’s all the rules helping the offense,’’ said former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky, now an NFL analyst for ESPN. “It comes down to coaches are smarter, and that will be the challenge moving forward: Which defensive coaches are going to showcase their smarts? I just don’t see it as being about the rules. The only rule that’s really changed is the contact downfield with receivers, the physicality you can have with them.
“People say there are so many kids (quarterbacks) out there lighting the world on fire and it’s because the game’s easier. I get bothered when I hear that. Quarterbacks 20 or 30 years ago did not see the type of exotic blitzes and pressures that young quarterbacks see now a days. They see harder coverages to diagnose and players are faster. And if it’s easier for the young guys, it should be easier for the old guys as well. But we have quarterbacks who have been greats or very good for a long time, and this season they’re not putting up the numbers they used. Tom Brady isn’t. Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Matthew Stafford aren’t either.’’
The debate about how much the design of NFL rules aide the offenses and hinder the defenses isn’t likely to be settled this season or anytime in the near future. But this much is clear as the 2018 regular season approaches its final two weekends: The scoring spectacle the Rams and Chiefs put on that Monday night has proven to be the exception, not the rule by any measurement.
“Everyone thought post-that Monday night game, ‘Oh, my goodness, here we go, this is the NFL now, ’’ Orlovsky said. “But here’s the thing. Both of those teams (the Rams and Chiefs) had five really good players they can get the ball to, and not every team has that. Both those teams have great young quarterbacks who are on their rookie deals, and not every team has that. And both of those teams have incredible play-callers, and not every team has that.
“So it was an overreaction to that one game for sure. Soon after that I was watching the SEC title game between Alabama and Georgia, and all that stood out to me was, no matter what era of football we’re in, if you can protect the quarterback and hit the quarterback, it will stand the test of time. And that’s what we’ve started seeing in the NFL again the past few weeks. If you’ve got really good players on defense, you’re going to be fine. (Bears defensive coordinator) Vic Fangio is not complaining right now.’’