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Scoring Distribution Since 1940

We all know that scoring is on the rise. The 2013 season was the highest scoring season in NFL history, just narrowly edging out the … 1948, 1950, and 2012 seasons. Scoring soared in the aftermath of World War II, but quickly dropped off in the middle of the 1950s. Scoring fell to its nadir in 1977, prompting the 1978 rules changes regarding pass blocking and pass coverage. After another lull in the early nineties, scoring has steadily increased over the last twenty years. Take a look at the average points per game for professional teams (including the AAFC and AFL) since 1940:

nfl ppg

With the way the passing game has exploded in recent years, it’s easy to assume that the increased proficiency of aerial attacks is the explanation for the increase in scoring. But that’s not the only reason, and it’s not the primary reason, either. Passing touchdowns are on the rise — there have been 23.9 touchdowns per team season since 2010 — but that average isn’t noticeably different from historical averages. In the ’50s, teams averaged 21.5 passing touchdowns per 16 team games; that number jumped to 23.9 in the ’60s, and was 21.4 in the ’80s. Moreover, the increase in passing touchdowns has generally been at the expense of rushing touchdowns. While there were 18.6 rushing touchdowns per 16 games in the ’60s and 14.9 rushing touchdowns per 16 games in the ’80s, there have been just 12.6 per team season over the past four seasons.

The graph below shows the real reason for the increase in scoring: field goal success.

NFL scoring averages

The blue portion of this area graph shows the number of passing touchdowns per 16 team games for every year since 1940; the red area shows the same data for rushing touchdowns, while the green portion is for all other touchdowns. As you can see, the number of touchdowns scored during the modern era is hardly unusual. The secret is in the purple area, which represents the number of successful field goals per 16 team games, which has accounted for nearly all of the increase in scoring.1

In 1950, the Baltimore Colts did not make a field goal. Two years later, the Dallas Texans, also failed to score any points via field goals. The remnants of that franchise, the Indianapolis Colts, hit 35 field goals in 2013. But Adam Vinatieri didn’t even lead the conference in field goals — both Justin Tucker and Stephen Gostkowski connected on 38 field goals last season.

The average team scored 81 points last year on field goals, the most in football history. For reference, in 1992, teams scored just 60 points per season via field goals, and were under 40 points per 16 games for nearly all of the ’50s. The high-water mark for scoring prior to 2013 was the 1948 season; that year, teams averaged just barely over one point per game via field goals.

The graph below shows the number of field goals made (in blue) and missed (in red) per 16 team games for every season since 1940.

fg misses

With extra points, we saw conversion rates fall off a cliff beginning in 1974, when the goal posts were moved from the front to the back of the end zone. Here we see that field goal attempts suffered a similarly dramatic decline, dropping from an incredible 37.8 per 16 team games in 1973 to just 24.3 a year later. As you can see, field goals, both attempted and made, began steadily increasing in the ’50s. That trend continued following the introduction of Pete Gogolak and other soccer-style kickers up until 1973; to the extent the NFL thought there were simply too many field goals being attempted, moving the goal posts back made sense. And it worked.

And while teams aren’t attempting 35+ attempts per season now, due to sky-high conversion rates, teams are making more field goals than ever. That’s fodder for a series of posts to come later this offseason. As for the increase in scoring? That’s due to improvements from the foot, not the arm.

  1. Fodder for another post, perhaps: Why hasn’t the increase in the prominence and effectiveness of the passing game led to more touchdowns? []
  • Greg

    Im a little disappointed in this article. You conclude that the increase in scoring is causrd by FG, but never mention FG%. Why not use FG% from last year and compare it to past seasons to determine how many points per game would have been lost last season if kickers had similar FG% to past kickers.

    • James

      1. He didn’t say those exact words, but he absolutely brought up field goal percentage. It even had its own chart! “We saw conversion rates falloff a cliff beginning in 1974” … “And while teams aren’t attempting 35+ attempts per season now, due to sky- high conversion rates, teams are making more field goals than ever.”

      2. It’s not as simple as adjusting for field goal percentage, because it makes/misses effect field position and a team’s willingness to attempt field goals.

  • Anon

    TDs are flat but there are more FGAs. With fewer FGA we’d expect more TDs.

    • Kibbles

      Why? Outside of rare exceptions, field goal attempts don’t come until the drive already stalls out. Perhaps coaches would be slightly more likely to go for it on 4th down, but given how badly they’re already underperforming optimal strategy in that area, I wouldn’t hold out hope for them to suddenly become aggressive. Instead, I suspect we’d see a lot more short punts. Changing a bunch of those field goal attempts to punt attempts would negatively affect starting field position (because there is less good field position from missed field goals, and because starting field position following a punt from the 30 is worse than starting field position after a kickoff following a made field goal).

      In fact, if the “worse starting field position” factor outweighed the “coaches become slightly more aggressive on 4th downs” factor, it’s entirely possible that with fewer FGA we’d expect FEWER touchdowns.

  • James

    Hey, at least one of my three guesses were correct (the others were more efficient offenses/passing and more plays per game)!

    I wonder if part of the reason better and more passing hasn’t led to an increase in scoring is because it’s leading to longer drives, which is also forcing teams to go longer to score, so all the gains by the passing offense is offset by the offenses putting each other into worse field position. To make up some numbers, say 20 years ago the average drive went 40 yards and the average starting field position was the 30, but now the average drives goes 50 yards but the average starting field position is the 20.

    Along the same lines, maybe there are fewer big plays, which we could test by looking at the standard deviation of passing plays? Or maybe punters are getting better along with kickers. Is scoring the same per half and quarter? Maybe there are more blowouts, which causes teams to kill the clock for longer. That doesn’t seem plausible, but just guessing here.

    Also any thoughts on Jason Lisk’s suggestion the NFL may have started doctoring the K-ball in 2011? It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but there’s very legitimate evidence for it. http://thebiglead.com/2013/12/05/brian-mitchell-says-the-nfl-is-doctoring-the-k-balls-and-he-might-not-be-crazy/

    • Richie

      Along the same lines, maybe there are fewer big plays

      Hmmm…interesting. The mindset of passing today is so different than 50 years ago. Now all these pass attempts are mostly short, low-risk passes. So fewer long pass plays, and fewer interceptions. In the 50’s it was bombs away, so lots of long pass plays and lots of interceptions. Both of those probably kept the scoreboard spinning.

  • Joe

    Yeah, while FGs are accounting for more points, much of it has to do with the increase of offensive efficiency as well.

    • Ty

      The increase in passing efficiency, and the rise of a higher pace of offense will lead to even higher levels of scoring, once coaches league wide take this into account.

  • Richie

    That trend continued following the introduction of Pete Gogolak and other soccer-style kickers up until 1973; to the extent the NFL thought there were simply too many field goals being attempted, moving the goal posts back made sense.

    Is that why they moved them? I always assumed it was a safety issue, so guys wouldn’t keep running into the goal post.

    Man, I couldn’t imagine what goal line plays must have been like when the linebacker can’t set up in the exact position he wanted because of the goal post.

  • Richie

    Chase, do you have a breakdown of FG attempts by distance between 1973 and 1974? I would assume that the number of attempts between 20 and 29 yards in 1973 would be similar to attempts between 30 and 39 in 1974. All the 10-yard ranges would just get pushed back one notch, except the 50+ yard attempts from 1973 would just disappear.

    But that chart makes it appear that it was more than just the “old” 50+ yard attempts that disappeared. It almost looks like coaches just feared FG attempts at all distances after the goal post was moved.

    • Chase Stuart

      I do! But it’s a long offseason, so I need to space these things out 🙂

    • Clark

      When they moved the goalposts back, they also changed the rule about where the ball was spotted after a miss. It went from being a touchback to being spotted at the line of scrimmage.

  • will

    That’s some nifty looking graphs. Increased FGs made seems so obvious in hindsight but I never would have thought it before!

    • Chase Stuart

      Thanks, Will.

  • Andropov

    Benjamin Morris did some excellent work on this a little bit ago for 538 and found much the same thing you did. http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/kickers-are-forever/