Record scoring pace alters strategies
NFL teams are lighting up scoreboards like never before, the game flooded with bigger, faster receivers, dual-threat quarterbacks and a rule book that puts defenders at a decided disadvantage.
All this has led to a change in everything from the coaches' game-day blueprints to their sideline strategies and even the attitudes of the men playing the game.
The average game in the NFL this season features 46.7 points.
While scoring tends to dip along with the colder temperatures, that's on pace to break one of the league's longest-standing records.
The highest scoring average in a season is 46.5 points.
Chances are you can win a bar bet by asking somebody to tell you when that mark was set.
Not during the Air Coryell years of the `70s and `80s.
Not during the Run-and-Shoot and West Coast offense heyday of the 1990s.
Not in today's era of spread offenses and the lung-searing no-huddle.
The mark was set way back in 1948.
''What the hell was going on back then?'' asked Champ Bailey.
Pro Football Hall of Fame Vice President Joe Horrigan said there weren't any rules changes that year to account for the anomaly, but after World War II there were fewer two-way players, so by `48, there was a lot more specialized play on the football field. And, like now, there were some pretty good passers, too.
In fact, most of the highest-scoring years on record came long before today's stars were even born:
Back then, three yards and a cloud of dust was still the norm, and the rules didn't yet favor offenses.
The most notable thing to happen in '48 was the introduction of the helmet emblem when Rams fullback Fred Gehrke painted horns on either side of his helmet.
And the championship that year was played in a blizzard, with the Eagles beating the Cardinals 7-0, a whimpering end to the greatest scoring binge in NFL history, one that remains a head-scratcher to this day.
That mark, though, could be relegated to history's dust bin by season's end thanks to overworked secondaries and scoreboards, just in time for a Baby Boomer born that year to collect a gold watch in retirement.
Thirteen teams are averaging at least 25 points, led by the Denver Broncos' eye-popping 42.9. At this rate, the Broncos will break New England's 2007 record of 589 points by almost 100 points.
Before this season, nobody had thrown for seven TDs in a game since 1969. Denver's Peyton Manning and Philadelphia's Nick Foles have done it this year in routs of the Ravens and Raiders, respectively, in games that were examples of teams never pumping the brakes in case their opponents turned the tide and went on a roll themselves.
Some teams are still satisfied to start milking the clock with a big lead, but that's becoming less common.
''At the end of the day the object's to win,'' Saints QB Drew Brees said. ''... So there are different strategies. I don't think anybody's trying to run up the score. People are just trying to operate effectively, get out and get ready for the next week.''
With the notable exception of the Kansas City Chiefs - the first team to allow no more than 17 points in each of its first nine games since the 1977 Atlanta Falcons - teams can no longer count on shutting down opponents.
It's just not realistic with today's rules that favor the passing game by protecting the quarterback and his receivers.
''Really, what's probably leading to more points is receivers don't fear coming across the middle,'' Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said. ''Then there's been a lot of penalties that have continued drives because of high hits.''
So far, there have been 17 400-yard passing performances, just one shy of the most ever for a full season, set in 2011, and quarterbacks are on pace to set NFL records for combined passer rating, completion percentage and total passing yards per game.
With so many passes in the air, you can expect Arena Football-like scores, and its' not just the offenses dancing in the end zone.
''If you're throwing the ball more there's more risk associated with it,'' Brees said. ''So, you might be scoring more points, but you're also turning the ball over more which gives them opportunities to score more. So I think the combination of that is why maybe that number is higher and it's not just about offenses.''
In fact, there have been 38 interceptions returned for touchdowns this season, the most through nine weeks since the 1970 merger.
Bailey said that when he came into the NFL 15 years ago, cornerbacks would be castigated by coaches and teammates alike if they gave up a few catches. Now, as long as it's between the 20-yard lines, nobody blinks an eye.
Let them pile up yards, not points. In the red zone, things start to even out. Passing lanes get crowded, angles for vertical routes diminish.
''Hold them to 3, don't give up 7,'' Bailey said in what has become a league-wide motto.
Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said the scoring binge affects strategy.
''Without question. You have an idea going in. You're probably going to need to score at least 24 points on average to win a game. At least probably a year ago that was the case. It seems like it's rising. But it's an offensive league. It's set up that way,'' Frazier said. ''People like to see points scored, although defensive coaches don't. But that's where we are, and it definitely sells well for our league.
''You have to try to find a way to slow those offenses down. You do go into it with a mindset you've got to score `X' number of points, and then on defense you've got to hold a team to `X' number of points to have a chance. But that number, it is rising.''
A few days later, Frazier proved his point by going for it on fourth down twice in a game against the Cowboys instead of sending out his kicker for a chip-shot field goal. One was successful, resulting in a touchdown. The other wasn't. So, that's seven points instead of six.
It wasn't enough as Dallas prevailed 27-23.
AP Pro Football Writer Dave Campbell, AP Sports Writers Brett Martel, Schuyler Dixon, Janie McCauley and Genaro Armas and AP freelancer Todd McMahon contributed.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton