clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How much more important is a good offense than a good defense in the NFL?

NFL offenses are better than ever ... but not ALL NFL offenses.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

It’s unanimous: these are boom times for NFL offenses. Just pick your favorite stat or tidbit. There are plenty from which to choose.

Et cetera. ESPN analyst and former Browns defensive back Louis Riddick summed it up pretty appropriately during Sunday night’s wild New England-Kansas City game:

One of the primary topics of this NFL offseason was that offenses were more openly borrowing concepts from college offenses. Well, in 2018, NFL offenses have become college offenses.

If you’re a defensive coach/player, or just a fan of Old School, Hard-Nosed Football™, this isn’t automatically a good thing. But if you enjoy things like points and yards — you know, fun things — this has been one hell of a development. It’s come from a perfect storm of rules changes, quarterbacks of certain skill sets, and open-minded offensive coaches.

The passing boom is not an accident; the NFL wanted it to happen. This is the juiced ball era of football, with the only difference being that there’s no real scandal here—just more points and yards. The younger quarterbacks will only get more accurate. The rules will only get more anti-defense. The athletes on offense will get even better.

Granted, some of these developments have been frustrating. The new roughing-the-passer rules enforcement has oscillated between annoying and baffling, and to be sure, rules protecting quarterbacks, receivers, etc., have contributed to the scoring boom. But they haven’t been the only reasons.

For anyone who has followed college football over the last decade or two, as speed and spread concepts have taken over the game, everything you’re currently seeing feels like a pretty natural development.

But we do need to make one thing clear: not all NFL offenses are improving.

This isn’t a league-wide revolution. In fact, the distance between good and bad offenses is about as wide as it’s ever been.

In five seasons between 2013 and 2017, four offenses averaged 6.3 or more yards per play over an entire season. Currently, five teams are averaging at least 6.5 yards per play: both Los Angeles teams, plus Tampa Bay, Kansas City, and New Orleans.

Let’s expand the net a little bit: between 2013-17, an average of three teams per year hit 6 yards per play or higher. There are currently nine at or above that mark.

Now, it hasn’t even been half a season yet. There will inevitably be some regression toward the mean in the coming months. But this is still incredibly abnormal. Over the last five seasons again, the most teams we’ve seen over 6 yards per play five weeks in is six (2015 and 2016), and the most we’ve seen over 6.5 is three (2013).

Because of the distance between good and bad offenses, offense means more than ever. Back in 2016, those six teams averaging 6 yards per play or higher were a combined 20-16 (a combined 0.556 win percentage). This time around, the nine at 6 yards per play or higher are 31-19 (0.620). The five at 6.5 or higher are a combined 21-7 (0.750).

Meanwhile, the teams with top-five defenses (per yards per play) are 15-15.

The difference between the top and bottom defenses in the league is massive.

This chart shows us the difference in yards per play between the No. 1 offense/defense and the No. 2 offense/defense, the difference between No. 2 and No. 3, etc. The top-ranked units are at 0.0, since they are behind nobody.

As you see, the slope in the middle is pretty similar, but there’s a much larger gulf between good and bad offenses than between good and bad defenses. And it has as much to do with the bottom teams as the top ones.

That makes having a good offense much more important than having a good defense.

We need to talk for a moment about those offenses at the bottom. The difference in yards per play between the top offense (the Bucs, at 7.2) and the bottom offense (the Bills, at 3.7) is a staggering 3.5 yards per play. The difference between the top defense (the Ravens, at 4.4) and the bottom defense (the Bucs again, at 6.9) is only 2.5. And 2.5 is pretty big! The average difference over the last five seasons was only 1.7!

Some teams have clearly gotten the memo. Those with aging but still elite quarterbacks (Saints, Chargers, Patriots), exciting and innovative coaching (Rams, Chiefs, Bears), or some combination of the two (Bengals) are either thriving or starting to figure things out in this new, offense-happy NFL.

But in some of the more remote corners of the NFL, the message has either not quite yet been received (Tennessee, Indianapolis), young quarterbacks are working without enough talent around them (Arizona, Buffalo, Cleveland), or, again, some combination thereof.

The Bills are truly on their own plane of (dreadful) existence. That they have won two games is miraculous.

Even as regression-to-the-mean perhaps sets in, the wins are already on the board, and the playoffs are probably going to feature more gaudy offenses than defenses.

For those of us who haven’t spent the first month and change of the season screaming “THIS AIN’T FOOTBALL” into a pillow, that’s a very good thing. This season has been fun as hell.