Average points per team, per game
After a disjointed N.F.L. off-season, after training camp was restructured and the preseason canceled, three teams — Baltimore, Green Bay and Seattle — scored five touchdowns in their first game. In all, there were 87 touchdowns in Week 1, the most in an opening week in league history, and that eruption foretold the offensive barrage to come.
In perhaps the strangest of the N.F.L.’s 101 seasons, more touchdowns and more points were scored than ever before, with a record five teams averaging 30 points per game — including the Packers, whose superlative quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, threw more touchdown passes (48) than times his team punted (47).
This trend has been decades in the making, as the chart above makes clear. But it also shows how 2020 was a true outlier. If trends from recent decades were our guide, this season’s scoring is something we might have expected to see in five or 10 years — say, the 2025 or 2030 N.F.L. seasons.
Here’s what’s behind a record year of N.F.L. scoring.
No. 1: No fans meant (essentially) no home-field advantage
With fans either barred or permitted at diminished numbers because of public-health concerns, the normal in-game din dropped to a murmur or — at some stadiums — to a near silence. That functionally eliminated any edge that a packed stadium full of screaming fans might provide to a home team. That gap has been steadily closing over the years, but visiting teams never scored more, on average, than they did in 2020.
Average points scored by home and away teams
“You don’t have to worry about the noise levels,” Steelers linebacker Avery Williamson said in an interview in October, when he played for the Jets. “You don’t realize how quiet it actually is on the field when you get out there. You could hear coaches talking across the field. It’s super weird.”
The subdued atmosphere created a more forgiving atmosphere for road teams, reducing the need for quarterbacks to use silent counts and allowing masters of the hard count, like Rodgers, to use his voice to draw opponents offside. Offensive linemen, in turn, could hear the calls more quickly and clearly. False starts dropped to a record low in 2020.
No. 2: Referees called fewer offensive penalties
A significant force driving the scoring eruption didn’t even involve players. On-field officials, adjusting the standard by which they enforced penalties, called the fewest offensive holding penalties since at least 1998.
This was perhaps most noticeable on what is typically the league’s costliest, most drive-killing penalty — offensive holding, which plummeted to its lowest levels in decades.
Average penalty yards per game
This drop is no accident. Instead, it reflects the wishes of the league office to flag only those instances that are “clear and obvious,” as Walt Anderson, the N.F.L.’s senior vice president of officiating training and development, explained to NFL.com after that record-setting Week 1.
Players around the league have noticed. Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, while watching his brother T.J, a star outside linebacker for Pittsburgh, get manhandled against Baltimore in early December without a flag being thrown, took to Twitter to express his frustration, calling the de-emphasis on offensive holding “purely comical.”
The lack of holding calls this year has been purely comical. Just so blatant.
— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) December 2, 2020
The cascading effects of that edict benefited offenses, which remained in better down-and-distance situations without as many drive-stalling 10-yard penalties and were also not as afflicted by sacks. T.J. Watt still managed to lead the N.F.L. with 15, but the sack rate leaguewide plunged to 5.9 percent, down from 6.7 percent last season and the fourth-lowest mark since at least 1949, according to Pro Football Reference.
On the other side of the ball, penalties for defensive pass interference increased for the third consecutive season, to its highest levels since at least 1998, which also extended possessions.
No. 3: Coaches Were Smarter on Fourth Down
At the same time, if teams weren’t successful on third down, more of them recognized the value of going for it on fourth down.
Teams went for it 658 times, up from 595 last season, especially on 4th-and-1, with teams going for it on 66 percent of those situations, according to Michael Lopez, the league’s director of football data and analytics. That’s up from an average of 43.2 percent over the previous 10 seasons.
More telling, though, was when they decided to go for it. Instead of being aggressive solely in the second half, when score and clock decay might dictate it, teams went for it before halftime more than 200 times, significantly more than they did in previous years.
No. 4: The N.F.L.’s quarterback evolution accelerated existing trends
At a position long defined by pocket proficiency, the best of this next generation marries cherished passing attributes — accuracy, arm strength and downfield vision — with mobility, elusiveness and an aptitude for extending plays.
With many of those quarterbacks aligned with a creative play caller and designer, N.F.L. teams continued to break offensive records, not just in points but in total yards; yards per play; pass attempts and completions; yards per pass; passing first downs; rushing yards per attempt; and more.
Ranking each N.F.L. season’s offensive per-game stats
Unlike defensive players, who couldn’t simulate tackling drills as they trained away from their teams’ shuttered facilities, many quarterbacks improvised by gathering running backs and receivers— and even some linemen — in parks or at school practice fields to master the scheme and build chemistry.
Patrick Mahomes recorded only the 13th season with 4,900 yards of total offense and was one of 12 quarterbacks who passed for more than 4,000. Over all, 10 threw for at least 30 touchdowns, tying the record established in 2016.
Many of these great passers are great runners, too, embodying the hybridized strain of quarterback permeating — and primed to dominate — the league for the foreseeable future. Josh Allen, Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson all rushed for more than 400 yards and threw for more than 4,000, while Kyler Murray came 29 passing yards short of joining them. For an encore, Lamar Jackson — who last season set the single-season rushing-yardage record by a quarterback with 1,206 — totaled 1,005 on the ground.
“We’re in a transition phase at the position,” said the former N.F.L. quarterback Dan Orlovsky, now an analyst for ESPN. “You’ve got to be a weapon, you’ve got to be a playmaker and you’ve got to play with reaction and instincts at that position. We’re going to see more Justin Herberts, Josh Allens, Lamars, Kylers, because that’s what’s happening in high school football, it’s what’s happening in college football.”