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Carolina Led The NFL In Points Scored In A Unique Way

Carolina led the league in points scored this season with an even 500. That is nothing to be ashamed: over the previous 15 seasons, the average points scored leader has put up 517 points, but six of those teams failed to hit the 500-points barrier. That is not an overwhelmingly high total, but it’s not really an outlier, either.

What is an outlier is just about everything else on the Panthers offense, at least among teams that led the league in scoring since 1970. Let’s start with the traditional metric used to rank offenses: total yards. Here, Carolina ranked just 11th overall. How unusual is it for a team to lead the NFL in points scored but rank outside of the top 10 in yards? Well, it’s never happened before, so I guess that qualifies as pretty unusual. The 1980 Dallas Cowboys, led by Danny White in his first season as a starter, ranked 9th, representing the previous low:

pts leaders yds

Total yards, of course, is no perfect measure of offensive efficiency. Let’s move on to Net Yards per Attempt, where Carolina ranked… well, only 10th in the league. [[Update: It appears 3 passing yards were reduced from Atlanta’s season-ending total; this change, from 4382 to 4379, was enough to jump Carolina from 10th to 9th.]] This is the single most basic measure of passing efficiency: take how many yards a team passed for (at the team level, passing yards is net of sack yards lost), and divide it by how many dropbacks the team had. A 10th-place ranking, though, is the worst by any league-leading scoring team since the merger. The previous cellar-dweller? Those 1980 Cowboys.

pts leaders nya

Carolina led the NFL in rushing attempts this season. In the modern NFL, that makes them pretty unusual. Yes, the 2012 Patriots led the league in points and finished 2nd in rushing attempts, but New England operated as a super high pace and finished 4th in passing attempts, too. Carolina is the first team since Washington in 1991 to lead the NFL in both points and rushing attempts:

pts leaders rsh att

Prior to that, just four other teams had pulled off this feat: Washington in ’83, Oakland in ’77, and Miami in both ’72 and ’73.

Carolina ranked 27th in pass attempts, which is also a severe outlier. Just the ’02 Chiefs and the ’88 Bengals (in a 28-team league) led the NFL in points scored and ranked 27th in pass attempts; no team ranked lower.

pts leaders pass att

Carolina was a run-heavy team that didn’t throw often or efficiently, at least compared to other top-scoring teams, and the disproportionate yards gained ranking is a huge outlier, too. But one chart that Panthers fans will enjoy is where the team also ranks in points allowed. While not a big outlier, Carolina is second-highest ranked team in this metric since 2000, behind only the ’07 Patriots.

pts leaders pts allowed

Finally, let me close with a listing of each team that has led the league in points scored since 1970.

1970San Francisco 49ers352
1971Dallas Cowboys406
1972Miami Dolphins385
1973Los Angeles Rams388
1974Oakland Raiders355
1975Buffalo Bills420
1976Baltimore Colts417
1977Oakland Raiders351
1978Dallas Cowboys384
1979Pittsburgh Steelers416
1980Dallas Cowboys454
1981San Diego Chargers478
1982San Diego Chargers288
1983Washington Redskins541
1984Miami Dolphins513
1985San Diego Chargers467
1986Miami Dolphins430
1987San Francisco 49ers459
1988Cincinnati Bengals448
1989San Francisco 49ers442
1990Buffalo Bills428
1991Washington Redskins485
1992San Francisco 49ers431
1993San Francisco 49ers473
1994San Francisco 49ers505
1995San Francisco 49ers457
1996Green Bay Packers456
1997Denver Broncos472
1998Minnesota Vikings556
1999St. Louis Rams526
2000St. Louis Rams540
2001St. Louis Rams503
2002Kansas City Chiefs467
2003Kansas City Chiefs484
2004Indianapolis Colts522
2005Seattle Seahawks452
2006San Diego Chargers492
2007New England Patriots589
2008New Orleans Saints463
2009New Orleans Saints510
2010New England Patriots518
2011Green Bay Packers560
2012New England Patriots557
2013Denver Broncos606
2014Green Bay Packers486
2015Carolina Panthers500
  • Adam

    I’m surprised by how many teams who led the league in scoring also led in total yards. I tend to think of total yards as a meaningless statistic, but perhaps for the very best offenses it is a reliable indicator.

    • Yeah, yards are often overrated, but meaningless is probably a stretch. More interesting: Carolina ranked 3rd in this measure of offensive efficiency http://www.footballperspective.com/2015-team-efficiency-ratings/

      • Adam

        I don’t think yards are meaningless in an absolute sense – but without context, yardage totals don’t tell us very much. It drives me nuts when the TV broadcasts trot out stats like “Team X is 21st in pass defense” as if total passing yards allowed actually means something.

        • Tom

          Agreed, context is important…which offense had the better drive, the one that drove 80 yards down the field and then was forced to kick a field goal, or the one that started their drive on the opponents’ 15-yard line and scored a TD? If we had only that one drive to go on, which offense would we say is better? The one that appeared to be better at getting yards, or the one that appeared to be better at scoring a TD? Guess this is why we have Expected Points and ANY/A, etc…

  • Tom

    I find this more remarkable because with the low yardage-efficiency numbers, you might think they scored a lot of “non-offense” points. They put up 35, which is pretty good (9th in the league, Arizona was first with 53), but certainly not a huge number. In any event, if we only include offensive TD’s and field goals, they still led the league this year with 29.1 PPG, and are ranked 19th since 1970, which is pretty impressive (well, after adjusting for era and SOS, they fall to 102nd, which isn’t so impressive).

    • The Panthers also led in points per drive (although there seems to be something off with FO’s stats; they have Carolina at 2.57 pts/drive and 185 drives, which implies 475 points, but they actually scored 465 on offense; either way, they still led).

      Carolina was 2nd in average starting field position thanks to the D/ST, so that explains a lot. The Panthers offense was 2nd in the red zone percentage (and 1st in points per red zone appearance), so that probably explains the rest. I think there’s still something more to it — a bit of a clustering effect. Carolina, I think, tended to cluster their good drives together, which would help in scoring but not yards. CAR ranked 13th in 3-and-outs per drive, which is pretty bad for the top-scoring offense.

      I ran a regression using LOS/drive, Yards/drive, and red zone points/red zone drive as inputs, and points per drive as the output. Carolina still “overachieved” at scoring by this measure, although not as much as Buffalo did and only a hair more than Jacksonville did. Those two teams had a ton of 3-and-outs, so I think the clustering effect makes sense.

      • Also, I just looked at PFR’s play-by-play logs. They have Carolina 11th in yards overall, but 2nd in yards through the 3rd quarter. So that’s pretty interesting. The Panthers have 45 offensive TDs through 3Q, and then only 10 more in the 4th. And according to the play-by-play logs, Carolina had 5878 yards, but 4608 through three quarters (note that the game logs include penalty yards).

        • Also, I’ll just note that Carolina is not exactly the first team to deal with this issue. Most years, the top scoring team tends to be really good, and take the foot off the accelerator in the 4Q. This is pretty much why I came up with Game Script. So I’m not sure that this is a great explanation for why CAR ranks “only” 10th in yards, but it is certainly a mitigating factor.

      • Adam

        That’s interesting. Do you think “clustering” is a repeatable skill, or is this a random occurence that is likely to regress next year?

    • And probably related to the clustering effect I’m talking about: Carolina easily led the NFL in points differential at halftime, which caused them to throttled down at times in the second half. If the Panthers had a bunch of TD drives and then went conservative, that would also cause the divergence in points/yards. Carolina scored only 98 points in the 4th quarter, 10th lowest in the NFL.

      • Adam

        The 2015 Panthers are 9th all time in scoring thru Q3. Probably a better measure than full game scoring, given the effects of easing up in Q4.


      • Tom

        Now this is interesting…yeah, they are WAY ahead of other teams….and those numbers aren’t even counting their two playoff games, in which basically the same script played out – domination by the end of the half. Speaking of scripts…I stopped keeping track of each team’s current Game Script, do you have Carolina’s average Game Script for the year? I would think they would be in the top 5?

    • Actually, we both got tricked — the ‘fumble’ return was actually an offensive, and a memorable one (a long Ed Dickson score).

      • Tom

        I see! Interesting…technically, that is a TD scored on offense, although in the way we would normally think. Gotta go fix my numbers now!

  • Johhny Ohrl