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