Home Field and Scoring in the NFL, an Update

After four weeks, I noticed (well, everyone noticed) that scoring was increased in the NFL. In addition, the home field advantage didn’t appear to be what it used to be.

We’re now 105 games into the 256-game season. I wanted to apply some basic statistical concepts to the observations.

After week seven, home teams are 53-51-1 (50.9%). The historic winning percentage for home teams is 57.4%. If we assume that home teams win 57.4% of their games, what we’ve observed would give us about a 91% probability that we’re looking at a different home win expectation. That’s a complicated concept. What it means is that given 105 games at a 50.9% winning percentage, there’s a 91% likelihood that the 105-game sample came from a football world where we can no longer assume home teams win 57.4% of the time.

That’s not a very high threshold, and I’d say it’s too early to make that conclusion even though it looks like playing in empty stadiums is removing the home-field advantage.

What about scoring, then? After seven weeks, teams are averaging 25.4 points per game. The league record, set in 2013, is 23.5. The assumption that the 105 games played so far could come from the same football world as 2013 has about a 0.2% likelihood. That’s well above the threshold statisticians would use to test that kind of question. We are very likely in a new world of offense here. Whether that’s empty stadiums, or new offensive innovations or defensive rust is impossible to determine right now.

Meanwhile, I had promised people another Front Office Football update by the end of October. Again, I apologize, but I am still waiting to hear information that would allow me to make the decision whether to proceed with FOF9. Development remains on hold and I continue to learn new techniques. We’ll try again next month. As we all know by now, I am really, really bad at adjusting to the obvious. I beat myself up all the time about it, but unfortunately, it’s just who I am.

An Unusual Signing

Yesterday marked one of the more unusual signings of the NFL year. It isn’t one that’s likely to have any impact on any team’s future performance.

Dallas signed journeyman Garrett Gilbert to a one-year deal worth about $750,000. Presumably, injured starter Dak Prescott, who is definitely out until around the start of next year’s training camp, will go on Injured Reserve.

Gilbert won’t start – that job goes to veteran Andy Dalton, who is third only to Joe Flacco and Alex Smith in career wins by an active quarterback who wasn’t starting prior to last week. In fact, Gilbert has never started an NFL game and has attempted only six passes in his pro career. He’ll likely move ahead of project Ben DiNucci on the QB depth chart. DiNucci was drafted in the seventh round this year, out of James Madison, where he lit up scoreboards but didn’t have to face FBS defenses.

Gilbert was as heralded a high-school signing as anyone, and chose Texas. He didn’t perform well for the Longhorns, and transferred to Southern Methodist, where he had one bad season and one decent season. He has all the obvious tools, and that merited a sixth-round pick from the Rams in 2014. But he was cut before the season even started. He had stints with four other teams, spending almost no time on active rosters, until last year. While it’s impossible to call a sixth-round pick in the NFL a bust, it’s rare that one remains in the league six years without ever seeing meaningful action.

Gilbert joined the Alliance of American Football in early 2019 and proceeded to dominate the league. Since there aren’t many opportunities for players to compete in live games against decent competition once college is over, this was notable and Gilbert earned another look in the NFL. The Browns signed him when the league went under, and they kept him as Baker Mayfield’s backup last season.

Still, Gilbert didn’t impress enough to prevent the Browns from bringing on journeyman Case Keenum in March, and putting Gilbert on the newly expanded practice squad after training camp. That’s where he was until yesterday, when the Cowboys signed him to their active roster.

OK, then. Why is this signing unusual? The NFL rules surrounding practice squads are a bit confusing. Players receive a small portion of the minimum salary and can practice with the team. Any other team is free to sign them at any time, as long as they are signed to an active roster. Each week, teams can protect up to four of their practice squad players. Those players, too, can be signed away, but there’s only a limited window for these transactions – essentially until early Tuesday.

Gilbert had been protected in this fashion by the Browns, but the Cowboys made the signing during the window. Why? This has to greatly annoy the Browns because he’s a quarterback who has spent 18 months in Cleveland and has learned the system as Mayfield has learned it. That has some value. But he’s in that magic bubble between succeeding in the NFL and being so hopeless in practice that teams won’t invest the time. That probably describes about 40-50 quarterbacks right now. Guys who are in shape, healthy, can learn a system, but you don’t want them on the field.

I don’t know of any feuds between the Cowboys and Browns. They played each other a couple of weeks ago and Cleveland embarrassed the Cowboys on their home field. The following day, the Cowboys signed lineman Greg Senat off of the Browns’ practice squad. Generally, feuds don’t begin because one team is historically bad on defense in a game, but one has to wonder if something happened to warrant this reaction. In what’s looking like a lost season in Dallas, stirring stuff up has only the downside of attracting some negative attention. But, for Cleveland, enjoying a solid start that could lead to their first playoff victory since their opponent was New England and Bill Belichick was the head coach on their sidelines, this is an unwelcome distraction.

There is clearly a need for more quarterbacks in the NFL. Anyone who sees any level of success on the field will continue to see new opportunities. Just being able to learn an NFL offense and run it on the field without being overwhelmed by the speed of the game is one of the most challenging tasks in professional sports. Teams like to carry three quarterbacks, and most, unless they’re protecting a young prospect who isn’t quite experienced enough for second string, stash the third one on the practice squad. Dallas could have chosen from the 20-or-so quarterbacks recently released by other teams. They didn’t, and Cleveland will have to find a new third quarterback.

There’s no rule against poaching practice squad players or targeting a particular opponent. And there’s no proof this was anything other than the Cowboys wanting Gilbert because their scouts saw something in those AAF performances. But it’s unusual, and especially with Cooper Rush, who spent 2017-19 with the Cowboys in this capacity, available after being released by the Giants, it’s a situation worth watching.

On Cardboard and Pinball

It’s a different NFL in 2020.

I could fill a good-sized novel with all the obvious changes in the world. When we look back at 2020 decades from now… well, no one will forget this year.

As we look at the empty stands, perhaps decorated with cardboard cutouts paid for by fans (I have to hand it to NFL marketing on that one – a lot of ticket holders will spend an additional $100 to have their pictures placed in the stands and I would have guessed the over/under on this one at somewhere around 10 people), subconsciously policing coaches for mask violations, wondering if Pete Carroll can still engulf 37 sticks of bubble gum without accidentally devouring his mask… what a world we live in. There’s an election coming up, did you know?

Masks are funny; I don’t quite know why because nothing else is funny about COVID-19. That poor sideline reporter at the start of Sunday’s night game… just not on quite right, slipping, slipping, slipping at she talked away… there’s the nose! I have no idea what she was talking about. Being hearing impaired, I might as well just stay home 24/7 until we’re through this because it’s really hard to pick up on when someone is talking to you. I don’t read lips, but I depend on these cues, I guess, to tune into a stranger’s voice.

I hope you’re all staying safe and healthy.

Aside from COVID-19, the NFL feels like a different game. I think it’s full-speed, but it seems more controlled. Injuries seem way down, except in New Jersey with its killer turf and Inglewood, California with the team doctor doing his best Norman Bates impression. College-like scores and comebacks. Mitch Trubisky and Bill O’Brien out, the Browns turning those 30-year frowns upside down. Josh Allen, huh? Didn’t expect that one.

I thought I’d answer a couple of questions I had about the game this year. Nothing definitive, because we’re only four weeks into this brave new world. The obvious… how are home teams doing without fans in the stands? How much of the home field advantage is the crowd, and how much just being familiar with the stadium and not having to take that plane ride and stay in a hotel?

The baseline: all regular-season and playoff games from 2002 (the start of the 8-division format) through 2019 played at a non-neutral site. That’s 4749 games. Home teams are 2723-2017-9 (57.4% win percentage) over that span, outscoring opponents 23.3 to 20.9.

We are now just 63 games into the 2020 season, so it’s impossible to make conclusions. That 57.4% would give the home team a 36-27 edge right now. Instead, home teams are 31-31-1. They are outscoring visitors, 26.1 to 25.2. Just throwing that out there – taking a sample of 63 games is not going to give you enough, statistically, to say that 31 wins versus an expected 36 means all that much.

What about the scoring in general? Here we are at 25.7 points per team per game. The league record is 23.4, set in 2013. Last year, teams scored 22.9 per game. So that’s an increase of 2.8 points per team per game over last year – almost a full touchdown between two opponents. Four weeks obviously does not make a season. Scoring isn’t all that weather-related. In fact, it tends to go slightly higher later in a season. Week 2 is the lowest-scoring week, on average, while most of the highest-scoring weeks bunch at the end of the season.

Let’s say the 25.7 holds up. That 2.8 points per team per game would be the largest season-to-season change since 1947 (2.9). Generally, changes are less than 1 point, if that. There was more volatility in the 1940s (free substitution rules changed quite a bit) and the 1970s (contact with receivers was gradually made illegal). Yet there are no major rules changes going on right now – it’s just that defenses seem far less able to stop the pass. There are still 13 teams averaging more than 7.5 yards per pass play. Last year, 13 teams averaged more than 7.0 yards per pass play. It is a bit pinballesque, like the college game these days.

Cause for concern? With everything else going on these days, there’s comfort in the familiar. Most sports enjoy relative consistency from year to year. Sudden changes in scoring or the pace or the rules leave us less able to put what we see in proper perspective.

Again, it’s far too early to draw conclusions, but so far I’m putting this in the long list of things I’m not really liking about 2020.