Commentary

Offense scores points with fans

Mailbag: Emphasis on scoring sets NFL apart from other sports, boosts popularity

Originally Published: January 29, 2014
By John Clayton | ESPN,com

A colleague recently mentioned to me that scoring was down in the NHL.

Over the past two seasons, NHL scoring is down near 5.3 goals per game compared to six goals a game in 2005-2006.

Baseball scoring is down, too, putting the sport in somewhat of a dead-ball era in which pitchers are dominating. In college basketball, digital scouting has allowed coaches to figure out tendencies quickly and make games more defense-oriented.

On the flip side, NFL scoring is at an all-time high at 46.8 points a game, and college football continues to open up the game with more scoring and spread formations.

Like it or not, a sport can't allow itself to be too defensive. Scoring means money, and scoring draws interest. The NFL competition committee is always aware of the importance of scoring and how it impacts the fans.

Look at the recent results of the Harris Poll, which tries to gauge the level of interest in sports. The results released Monday were staggering. Respondents were asked to list their favorite sport. Pro football beat out baseball, 35 percent to 11 percent. Thirty years ago, when the Harris Poll began, pro football held a 1 percent lead over baseball, 24-23.

Since then, baseball went through a steroid period in which hitting and homers went up and so did the ratings. Today, the hitters aren't as powerful as the pitchers and are getting controlled; scoring has dropped and so has interest in the sport.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelPeyton Manning ignited an offensive surge in the NFL that hasn't slowed down.

Baseball hasn't adjusted. Pro football has. In 1978, NFL defenses dominated to a point that the NFL changed rules to open up the sport. Contact between a defensive back and a receiver was flagged if it happened after five yards. Year by year, the committee found ways to create more offense.

Scoring increased.

The next change started after Peyton Manning came into the league in 1998. He started going to three-receiver sets and running a faster-paced offense. Throughout the 2000s, more and more quarterbacks took control of offenses and made the fourth quarter their forums for scoring points and gaining yards.

While traditionalists complained, fans became more drawn to the NFL. Fantasy football further enhanced interest, because fantasy players craved the stats.

The No. 1 defense takes on the No 1 offense in this Super Bowl, but the result won't change the reality. The NFL's move to keep changing the game to enhance scoring is widening its interest gap as compared to the other sports.

From the inbox

Q: I have what I think is a brilliant idea. I can't believe it hasn't been mentioned by people much smarter than me. The NFL owners and Roger Goodell want to go to an 18-game schedule. The players on the face say no (want more money and/or increased risk of injury). Why not do this? (1) go to an 18-game schedule, (2) increase rosters (four to eight players) and salary cap (10 percent); (3) every player can only be active for 16 games and (4) add one or two playoff spots per conference. This would add a tremendous amount of coaching and GM strategy to the game. Does a coach give his players a midseason break? Does he rest all his stars at once (giving up a game) or spread them out? Injured players can be rested.

Keith in Nanuet, N.Y.

A: The 10 percent salary cap increase won't work. Owners locked in labor costs under 48 percent. That won't change until a new CBA is concluded. The two-game rest idea has been floated. You'd have to do the math to see if that works. If you're saying the extra two games could increase revenue by 10 percent and that would go to the players, it might be a consideration. Any increase in games would increase the roster sizes. For any of that to happen, though, you have to have some kind of developmental league involved. The drop between the starting quarterback and the backup quarterback is too drastic for those two games. For the quality of those games, the league needs to do something to upgrade backup quarterbacks. Not bad thoughts, though.

Q: With the talk of changing rules to make PATs more challenging, why have I not heard any discussion about narrowing the goalposts? Field goals seem too easy anymore and are taking some of the interest/strategy out of the game. If the goalposts were 15 percent to 20 percent narrower, I think the game would be more exciting. Extra points would be somewhat more difficult (I've seen plenty just sneak in), coaches would be more likely to go for it on fourth down and the 50-yard field goal would not be automatic anymore.

Ryan in Carmel, Ind.

A: I don't see how making it tougher to score points makes things better. There is nothing wrong with the extra point. I'll tell you one thing I picked up at the Super Bowl: If you keep tweaking the special-teams rules, you will chase away the top special-teams coaches. That is already happening. If you narrow the goal posts or eliminate the extra point, I don't think you are benefiting the game. You are creating more failed plays. If injuries aren't a concern on extra points -- and I don't see how they are -- is the game really that much more exciting with failed fourth-down plays at the 34-yard line if you entice teams to try fewer field goals? I have to be sold more on such a change.

Q: Talking about cold-weather Super Bowls, why doesn't each NFL team pay 30 million dollars to build a stadium in a warm-weather city (Hawaii or Orlando, Fla.) for permanent Super Bowl site? It could also be used for a college bowl site and a year-round convention site. The fans could enjoy Super Bowl week as a vacation.

Jerry in Billings, Mont.

A: Why pay $30 million a team when cities are going to pay for Super Bowl staging costs along with giving the league the use of the stadium. Cities realize great revenues from Super Bowls. The league loves rotating to different cities because the competition allows the game to bring nice profits to the owners along with getting a great game. Giving it to one or two cities would eliminate the competition and not produce the revenue. This may be a sport, but it's also a business.

Q: Couldn't a case be made that concussions can be tied to players not being prepared for the hits? Years ago you never saw helmets get pulled off players. You sure didn't see helmets pop off just from a hit. Chin straps must be adjusted and snapped. Just as important, the helmet must be fit and adjusted to protect the head as best as possible.

Ken in Spokane, Wash.

A: A case can be made that players aren't always prepared, but it's still about the collisions. Players have to be constantly reminded to prepare for the concussions. The league and the players association need to continue to look for ways to protect players better. They need to continue studies on protocol and safety issues. Years ago, you did see players have their helmets come off. Chin straps were coming off years ago.

Q: I'm hoping you can shed some light on this issue. This season, the Ravens and Steelers finished 8-8. However, the Steelers won the tiebreaker and therefore finished in second place in the AFC North. Come draft time, the Steelers will be drafting ahead of the Ravens. It makes no sense to me why a second-place team drafts ahead of a third-place team. Shouldn't the same tiebreaker be used for draft position?

Josh in Baltimore

A: Draft positions are based on record, using strength of schedule as the only tiebreaker. The Steelers played a .469 schedule. The Ravens played a .481. That's the reason even though they had the same records and their positions in the division are switched. Good question.

Q: What is the problem with seeding the playoffs? First off, I am all for all the division winners getting into the playoffs. That is the prize for winning a division. But I think not just the byes, but the home field, should be earned based on the actual conference standings, instead of awarded for winning your division. For example: If the top two teams happened to be Seattle and San Francisco, then they both should get byes in the first round, instead of one of them getting a bye while the other goes on the road to a 9-7 division winner. Winning the division equals playoffs; winning a lot of games and getting national attention equals home field and byes.

Matthew in Alexandria, Va.

A: I don't see this changing, The NFL believes in the divisional format. And what's wrong with it? The second-place team in a good division can take care of itself. The 49ers did. They won two games and faced the top team in their division, the Seahawks. Once the NFL goes to 14 playoff teams, only the top seed will get a bye week. The second seed will have to play in the wild-card round. The system is still working. It did this year.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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