JOSH DUBOW, AP Pro Football Writer
Passing has never been easier and defenses are overmatched on a weekly basis.
Whether it was the virtual offseason that hampered defensive development, a lack of screaming fans to hinder road teams, rules changes that always seem to favor the offense or coaches willing to be more aggressive, NFL clubs are scoring at a record-setting pace in 2020.
Teams are averaging 25.3 points per game just past the midway point of the season, easily exceeding the previous record through nine weeks of 24.8 in the 1961 AFL. The top mark in NFL history through nine weeks was 24 ppg in 2018.
The high scoring has led to a record number of comebacks, with 29 teams winning games after trailing by at least 10 points — one shy of the record through Week 9 set in the 1987 strike season. It has also led to 21 teams losing games when scoring at least 30 points, tied for the second-most already for an entire season behind only the 27 in 2018.
Teams are scoring on a staggering 41.3% of their drives, up from 32% just a decade ago and easily surpassing the previous high since records began being kept by SportRadar of 36.8% in 2018.
Much of the offense has been fueled by the ease of passing, with the average rating of 95.1 the highest ever through nine weeks and up more than 10 points than at this point in 2011.
Here are some of the reasons why scoring is up so much:
HOME FIELD DISADVANTAGE: The coronavirus pandemic has dealt a blow to home-field advantage, with most games this season being played without fans and even those with supporters having much smaller crowds. That has eliminated the need for silent counts for road teams, making life much easier for offenses.
Road teams are 67-65-1 this season, marking the first time since 1983 (68-57-1) that they had a winning record through nine weeks.
There has been no difference in scoring when it comes to who’s at home and who’s on the road, with teams averaging 25.3 points per game in each instance. From 2010-19, home teams outscored road teams by 2.0 points per game.
PRECOCIOUS ROOKIES: The lack of an offseason hasn’t had a major effect on the performance of rookies, as the college game is doing a better job each year preparing players for the transition to the pros. Whether it’s rookie quarterbacks like Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow, dynamic receivers like CeeDee Lamb and Justin Jefferson, or running backs like Clyde Edwards-Helaire and James Robinson, teams are getting big contributions from rookies.
The class has combined for 94 touchdowns, the second-most through nine weeks behind 96 in 2014, excluding the 1987 strike season that had three weeks of replacement players. The 13,049 yards from scrimmage are the most ever for rookies at this point of the season.
The quarterbacks have been especially effective, with the 96.1 rating for rookie QBs easily exceeding the 79.3 mark through nine weeks from the previous 10 seasons.
DUAL THREAT QBs: The quarterback position is no longer reserved for stationary drop-back passers. The ability to run on designed plays or scrambles has never been a bigger part of the game, whether it’s speedsters like Kyler Murray and Lamar Jackson, or opportunistic athletes like Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen.
In all, quarterbacks have rushed for 4,851 yards and 63 TDs this season, the most ever through nine weeks. That’s already 22 more touchdown runs for QBs than the next-highest seasons through nine weeks in 2002 and 2019.
AGGRESSIVE COACHES: With a premium on scoring and more influence from the analytics community, coaches have also gotten more aggressive. The 334 fourth-down tries are the most through nine weeks since at least 1991. Teams have converted 188 of those into first downs — 40 more than any other season at this juncture — and the 56.3% success rate is also the best ever.
Even the misses can contribute to scoring by giving the opposing team better field position than after a punt.
FLAG FOOTBALL: From the crackdown on hits against defenseless receivers to the protections in place for quarterbacks, NFL rules always seem to tilt toward the offense. That’s true again this year with officials calling fewer holding penalties.
There have been 233 holding calls this season, down significantly from last year’s total of 446 through nine weeks. That has reduced the number of drive-killing penalties and also made it harder to sack quarterbacks. The sack rate has dropped from 6.8% of pass plays through nine weeks last year to 5.9% this season.