Oct 072013
 

Scrolling through my Facebook feed this morning, I stumbled across this gem: Broncos-Cowboys game underscores diminishing role of defense in NFL.

OK, so that Broncos game Sunday was very exciting. It kept us all on the edge of our seats, and it certainly enlivened my son’s birthday party. But what about defense?

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Now, I love a good “kids nowadays” rant as much as anyone. (Don’t get me started on how every one of today’s stars is the “Best. Player. EVAR.”) But I like my arguments to be underpinned by actual… um… whaddaya call ’em?

Oh, right.

FACTS.

The NFL has done everything it can to prevent defenses from doing what they are supposed to do, which is to stop the other team from scoring, not lay down and provide a doormat for them. Offensive linemen are allowed to do all sorts of things that would have been called holding in the past. Defensive backs are severely restricted in what they can do to impede wide receivers.

I’ll leave aside the obvious counter-argument that anyone who supports the Green Bay Packers has no idea what he’s talking about, and simply focus on those pesky facts: this year, the National Football League is averaging 23.1 points per team per game. Remove the ridiculous start by the Denver Broncos, who will likely regress to the mean, and that average is 22.3; or a half-point lower than last season (22.8), and almost identical to 2011 (22.2).

If you want to argue recent rules changes have shifted the league towards the passing game, you can do that. So far this year, 2.32 yards have been gained through the air for every yard gained on the ground; five years ago, the ratio was 1.82:1.

Sadly, Mr. Meyer forsakes the rational argument for one based on his emotional attachment to what he thinks was the game of his youth:

I like old-school football. I grew up watching Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers teams, which included nine Hall of Fame players. They played great defense, and they had a nearly unstoppable running game. They had a Hall of Fame quarterback, but in his five championship seasons Bart Starr averaged 157 yards passing per game. He averaged 13 touchdown passes per season.

Unknowingly, Mr. Meyer completely undercuts his own position, while simultaneously making the case for the current era representing a shift in offensive focus, rather than an upending of the traditional offensive/defensive balance of power. Statistically, Bart Starr’s best year was 1966, when he had a 105.0 passer rating. Like me, I’m sure you are curious to know what the scoring average was that year.

It was 21.7.

That’s right: in the defense-heavy struggles of yesteryear, teams scored 0.1 points per game MORE than were being scored during the decade from 2003-2012. Sure, if you only focus on the last five years, teams are scoring 0.4 points more per game than in 1966; but that’s the equivalent of two additional field goals per season.

Also, for what it’s worth, the scoring average in 1966 represented a slight drop-off from 1965, when the scoring average was… wait for it…

23.1.

You might recognize that number, since it’s the same as we’ve seen through the first five weeks of this season.

So, if scoring isn’t really up in the modern NFL, why do Meyers and so many others persist in making such claims? For one possible answer, consider the following lines from the linked article:

“…They played great defense, and they had a nearly unstoppable running game…”
“…I like watching a good running back wear down a good defense…”
“…great defense, great running game…”

In Meyers’ mind, a good running game and good defense go hand in hand, to the point that the one is interchangeable with the other. He grew up with an NFL in which the running game was much more prevalent than today (although not dominant — the air/ground yardage ratio in 1966 was 1.47:1), yet “remembers” a league in which defense played a bigger role. And that is objectively untrue.

Meyers’ disdain for the passing game reaches its apex here: “…it has become so easy to throw touchdown passes.”

Seriously?

In the past fifty years, the number of passing touchdowns has remained remarkably steady, averaging about 1.3 per game. The coefficient of variance is 10%; that means two-thirds of seasons fell within 10% of the average. Last year, it was a whopping 1.5. Sure; that’s an increase of 15% over the fifty-year average, but so what? That’s one additional touchdown through the air for every five games.

Why does all this matter? Isn’t Meyers just another sloppy sports journalist with column inches to fill?

Perhaps. But arguing for the revocation of rules changes to “correct” a non-existent imbalance is not only farcical, it is downright dangerous when you consider many of those changes were put into effect out of respect for player safety. Maybe the rules make the game safer; maybe they don’t. Regardless, it’s clear they aren’t substantively tilting the game in favor of the offense. (At least not yet.)

You don’t have to like the same things about football that I like. If you would prefer three yards and a cloud of dust, that’s your prerogative. But don’t take your prejudice and dress it up as some existential threat to the very nature of the game.

Danny Boy

Hi. I'm Dan. I like football, baseball, and cheese. Also beer. I live in Colorado, where we have good beer and great football. Baseball and cheese? Not so much.

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