3 Reasons For Rise In NFL Scoring & What It Means For Betting Overs

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Abbie Parr/Getty Images. Pictured: Seahawks WR Tyler Lockett

Without a preseason and limited to no fan attendance, many expected unusual results early in the NFL season. The primary topic of conversation revolved around the value of home-field advantage and whether offenses or defenses would have an edge over the other early on.

Well, there’s been no advantage either way in regards to underdogs vs. favorites or home teams vs. away teams — which are all 24-24 against the spread heading into Week 4.

However, we have seen some lopsided results in the totals market.

3 Potential Reasons For Rise In NFL Scoring

Through Thursday night’s Broncos-Jets game, overs have gone 30-19 (61.2%) against the closing line and have hit by an average of 4.76 points per game. Even in a small sample size of 49 games, that margin is glaring.

That margin also aligns with how much scoring has risen in 2020 compared to 2019. Games are averaging approximately 5.3 more points through Week 3 of this season at 51.0 points per game compared to last season’s overall average of 45.6.

So, what could be driving this 5.4-point increase?

Well, there could obviously be some noise in a sample size that small. There’s also an early-season effect when quarterback health is generally at its peak and the weather conditions are favorable to offenses. And without a preseason, offenses could simply be ahead of defenses early on. Just think about some of the marquee matchups between projected elite defenses vs. projected elite offenses so far — the defenses have lost almost every battle. Then try to go back and count the number of sweat-free unders so far. You’ll need only one hand.

Elsa/Getty Images. Pictured: Broncos WR Jerry Jeudy

However, none of that really explains the 5.4-point jump. So, what does? I focused on the following three factors that could potentially be driving somewhere in the ballpark of four points per game in 2020:

  1. Increased pace and efficiency
  2. Change in officiating
  3. More fourth down attempts

Let’s take a closer look at each.

1. Increased Pace and Efficiency

Pace and efficiency have risen across the board, which is likely related to empty or near-empty stadiums.

In my opinion, the lack of noise has created an environment more conducive to offenses. Communication has become much easier between each unit, whether it’s offensive linemen sharing assignments or quarterbacks making adjustments after reading opposing defenses. This ability to better communicate enables an offense to move quicker and with more efficiency.

On a per-game basis, we’ve seen about an additional four plays per game this season. I estimate that this effect, combined with a jump in yards per play, has contributed to somewhere around two of the 5.4-point increase. (There’s some covariance between these two factors.)

2. Change In Officiating 

We’ve seen historically-low holding and false start penalties in 2020.

The decrease in false starts makes sense with no crowd noise. However, that doesn’t explain the extreme drop in holding calls. We’ve also seen an increase in defensive pass interference calls. And all three provide a boost to offenses.

Take a look at the per-game averages for those three penalty calls since 2010, including ones that get declined:

 

Think about the impact one fewer holding call per game can have — that’s one fewer potential drive-killing hold that could lead to more time coming off the clock before a punt. And in some cases, that hold may have wiped out a big gain by the offense.

Now think about the impact one more defensive pass interference penalty can have — it can be devastating for a defense from a yardage perspective.

Illegal contacts have actually decreased slightly while neutral zone infractions have risen a tiny bit, although the latter could be related to more effective hard counts.

Offensive pass interference, delay of games and offsides calls have all remained relatively flat on a per-game basis.

I estimate the change in officiating — random or not — has been responsible for about a touch more than two points in the rise in scoring per game. Some people have attributed the entirety of the scoring increase to penalties, but 40-50% is likely a more realistic estimate.

3. Fourth Down Aggression

If you examine the percentage of all fourth-down opportunities, fourth-down attempts have jumped once again this season by almost 2%.

That will naturally lead to more points.

MSA/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: Kyler Murray

Not only do the expected points go up on most fourth-down attempts because teams opt to not punt or settle for a field goal, but because when teams go for it on fourth-and-1 near midfield — or even in their own territory at times — it either prolongs the drive or allows the opposing team to take over near midfield.

The alternative is a punt that could pin the opposing team deep in their own territory.

How I’m Adjusting Totals For Each Factor

Performing a historical analysis and thought exercise about what’s happened can be informative, but the most important thing is what to expect moving forward.

Here’s how much I’m adjusting my totals based on each of the three factors:

1. Increased Pace and Efficiency: I expect some regression here, especially once fans can fill up stadiums again. I’ve assumed a 1-point jump moving forward until fans return, but it’s worth keeping a close eye on each week.

Adjustment: 1 Point

2. Fourth Down Aggression: This trend should persist and continue to increase over time. As a result, I’ve adjusted my totals up an additional 0.5 point on average to get ahead of the curve. I’ll obviously continue to track and adjust as necessary.

Adjustment: 0.5 Point

3. Change In Officiating: This is the wild card. It’s very difficult to project the future impact, since it’s hard to quantify the amount of noise in these numbers over a three-week sample size.

If the league mandated these changes through informal communication with its officials, we have to adjust our totals moving forward. However, it may be a bit less in the future as an emphasis on certain calls or non-calls will probably be most evident early in the season. That’s the human element.

If it’s not a league mandate, most of this is probably just noise.

The league could also change its tune at any time. I tend to think these changes came from the top. They’re significant and align with everything the NFL desires in terms of getting more points and offense. I’ve assumed a 1.5-point increase for the change in officiating and will continue to monitor closely on a weekly basis.

Adjustment: 1.5 Points

My Overall Adjustment

Overall, I’ll increase my totals by about three points on average until fans return, then it will preliminarily drop to a 2-point average increase if everything remains the same (which is highly unlikely). Of course it’s not just a flat increase to every game as it will depend on the pace and projected total for each specific matchup, but it will come out to an approximate bump of three points overall.

It’s a big increase that would have saved me from betting a few unders I lost through the first three weeks, but there was really no way to have any idea about any officiating changes (if true). Looking back, I probably should’ve increased my required edge threshold to bet an over/under with the uncertainty surrounding the lack of crowd noise.

I know others who have only adjusted their totals up by about two points on average as they await more data, but I decided to take a conservative approach. That’s simply a personal preference as I’m very hesitant to get near most unders right now.

With a sample size this small, you have to rely on some intuition and gut.

Maybe we’ll see extreme regression in both penalties and pace, but my eye tells me these changes have validity.  I could certainly be way off, but I wanted to share my thought process — there are legitimate reasons this season differs significantly from the 2011 post-lockout season, when we saw a major correction to overs after a quick start.

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