If it looks like there are a ton of close games every week in the NFL this season, you’re definitely not imagining things. When it comes to closed contests, 2022 is shaping up to be a historic milestone. So far this season, 92 games (90 decisions and two ties) have been decided by 6 points or fewer, the most through Week 14 in NFL history. To put that in perspective, at least half of all games played in nine of the 14 weeks were decided by 6 points or less.
All of these close games have led to some incredibly exciting endings. The most recent example is Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s last-minute advance on Sunday against the Houston Texans, a win that saved the Cowboys from the embarrassment of losing to a 17-point underdog. On Thursday in Los Angeles, we were also treated to an unlikely comeback led by Baker Mayfield against the Los Vegas Raiders, a victory that came just two days after he joined the Rams. And there have been 75 more winning drives since the season began.
In fact, teams are on pace to record 101 game-winning drives in 2022, 12 more than in any season since the merger. And even after adjusting for the extra games of a 17-week season, the pace is historic: The NFL averages 5.5 game-winning drives. per week. Mercy.
What’s going on here? Who increased parity to such absurd proportions? Should we expect it to continue?
One partial answer is that teams have become more conservative in their passing attacks for most of the game, controlling more than in any season since at least the mid-2000s. Nearly 24 percent of all pass attempts have been at or behind the line of scrimmage in 2022, 5.8 percentage points higher than in 2006 (our first season with data) and the highest number we’ve seen since that year. The average depth of target across the NFL has fallen from 8.74 to 7.47 yards in that span and, in a not-so-shocking twist, shorter passes have led to lower passing yardage: yards per completion have also hit a minimum of 16 years. , at 10.95.
The net effect of the drop in downfield passes has been fewer touchdown passes and a decrease in overall scoring. NFL teams are averaging 22.0 points per game in 2022, down from the all-time high of 24.8 just two seasons ago. Part of the drop in offense could be explained by the addition of two high-security coverages across the league, but the evidence for that theory isn’t very strong. (It could also just be all those Justin Herbert Controls.)
Somehow, the league has morphed from one where gunmen fill the air with on-field bombs to one that run-loving Vince Lombardi might appreciate. For example, interceptions per game, which have been in steady decline since the 1950s, are now at their lowest levels since the 1930s. Meanwhile, running has never been more efficient. Yes, that’s right: NFL teams have been passing so much that it’s become easier to rack up rushing yards. Yards per rush attempt have increased from last season’s high of 4.4 to 4.5 yards per carry, the most in league history.
But it’s not just old-school conservatism that leads to close games. One part of the game that Lombardi wouldn’t acknowledge (and probably wouldn’t approve of either) is the continued popularity of fourth down. Per game, he is listed by coaches as the second most frequent since at least 1984,1 and they’re converting those attempts at the seventh-highest rate in that same span. Most of the league (20 teams) have done it 15 or more times this season.
The main benefit of fourth-down aggression is that it allows teams to spread offenses. Time of possession per drive (2:48) is the second-highest since 2000 (2:32), an increase of 16 seconds over that period. The downside to offenses is that longer drives mean fewer possessions per game.
A bit of modeling shows that we should expect teams to lose about one drive per game for every 15-second increase in time of possession per drive.two And in 2022, teams are sitting right at 10.9 drives per game, exactly one drive per game less than they were in 2000. Fewer and longer drives are a solid recipe for close games, especially when those drives are loaded with runs and throwing quarterbacks. Out of line. of skirmish.
This mix of conservatism and aggressiveness is making tight scores and convincing finales. Teams are playing it safe most of the time, passing short to avoid turnovers in the air and running the ball to take advantage of the two-high safety looks they’re seeing more often. But when they fall behind and need to get through late, offenses don’t hesitate to use every opportunity Walter Camp has given them.
If these trends continue, there’s no reason to expect close games to go away. The lack of scoring can make the game less exciting early in the games, but if it means tight scores late in the fourth quarter and a record volume of games decided in the final series, that seems like a nice tradeoff. worth doing
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