Why Has Defense Disappeared in the NFL?

How Has the Lack of Defense Affected Sports Betting on NFL Games?

It is not an illusion that offense has become the name of the game in the NFL this year so far and that conversely NFL defenses are underperforming in a big way.  This past week, New England and Kansas City scored a combined 84 points and the over/under for the game was “only” 69.9 points.  That means that these two teams scored about 20% more points than expected.

Legal sports betting in the United States has just gotten underway in many states.  The availability of making legal bets on the NFL and the NHL and soon the NBA in addition to baseball playoffs was supposed to energize the sports loving American public.  However, as far as the NFL is concerned, scoring has become so pervasive that it is hard to make an informed bet on the spread or the over/under.

How did offense in the NFL grow so fast from one year to the next?  Here are a few ideas.

Protecting the Quarterback

The new rules that protect NFL quarterbacks certainly have their critics who say that even the slightest contact is becoming ruled “roughing” the quarterback.  This allows quarterbacks to stay in the pocket longer and to find receivers further downfield than was possible before.

It also causes defenses to be more spread so that even a short pass which might have been tightly defended in the past is now completed in a more open environment for the receiver to instantly turn into a runner and create a big play.  The more big plays a team gets on offense, the more likely it is to score several touchdowns and to befuddle the sportsbooks and the betting public.

Protecting the quarterback also opens up running lanes for quarterbacks.  Once a quarterback starts running, it is impossible to tackle him in the conventional way; the defense simply has to wait for him to go into his slide.  Many drives are being extended in this way as quarterbacks escape one rusher and gain enough yardage running for a first down.

Over-sized Offensive Linemen

As offensive linemen get bigger, they are also getting stronger and faster.  It makes defense against both the pass and the run more difficult but especially against the pass.   The linemen can give their quarterback the extra fraction of a second he needs to complete a pass down the field.

Young Quarterbacks

The ability to run from the quarterback position has made it possible for first year or second year quarterbacks to become starters.  In the 1960’s and 1970’s the conventional wisdom was that a quarterback needed five years as an understudy to become a starter in the NFL.

The Chicago Bears had a quarterback named Bobby Douglas in the late 1960’s who was a poor passer but could run.  He was seen at the time as a freak even though he was capable of gaining as much yardage as a good halfback.  Today, many quarterbacks have the running skills of Bobby Douglas and much better passing skills.  The combination has proved devastating for NFL defenses which have to stop the pass and also stop the quarterback from running for big gains.

College Style Offenses

There was a time that NFL coaches looked down their collective noses at college style offenses.  A young quarterback from a non-NFL style offensive program was considered behind the learning curve.  Today, NFL offenses are being spread far more than ever before.  More players are going out on pass routes and defenses are struggling to keep track of all the receivers. 

In the 1960’s there were always three running backs behind the quarterback who never started a play from the shotgun formation.  Today, there is usually only one running back, many plays start as a shotgun formation, and therefore there are many more potential receivers.

The so-called West Coast offense of Bill Walsh had a lot to do with showing that short passes can result in long gains.  That has evolved into today’s newer offenses in which receivers can get open further downfield and have space to run in after the catch.

Defensive players, no matter how fast they are, cannot keep track of every nuance in an offensive play with so many receivers and special protection given to quarterbacks.

Two Point Conversions

An eight point deficit was once considered a two score deficit.  So teams would kick a field goal and hope to get the ball back for a late game winning drive.  Now an eight point deficit is a one score game.  As such, many teams run a play on fourth down.  This leads both to higher scoring and to teams losing by a wider margin as they played to score the tying touchdown with the two point conversion.

Close Games

In the not so distant past, when defense was ascendant, close games were also low scoring games.  In today’s NFL, close games are far more likely to be high scoring games.  When the spread is usually three points, the difference between winning on the spread and losing is a single long play. 

Adjustments

The NFL is a league that thrives on adjustments.  So, just as everyone was getting used to high scoring games, the league’s defensive coaches will make the necessary adjustments and teams will score less.  This will further cloud up the standard over/under and spread bets in NFL games.

Weather

The bad weather months are approaching. It could be that the high scores of September and October will be replaced by the low score of November and December as cold temperatures, high winds, rain, and snow make it a lot more difficult to pass the ball.

All of the above weather factors make passing a lot harder and teams rely on sure-handed running backs to move the ball.

A Murky Betting Landscape

NFL fans have been betting on the league’s games legally and illegally for decades.  Bettors also make adjustments as they become aware of “facts” rather than speculation.  So, legal sports betting on NFL games may slowly evolve into one of the grand armchair pastimes in the United States.

In the meantime, everyone is looking to see if and when defenses can make the necessary adjustments to make an over/under of 70 points or more passé.

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