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.