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So what was the point?

Oct 12, 2004 3:59 AM

So what’s all this business about higher scoring games in the NFL?

Pro football didn’t like the way the Patriots defensive backs used the five-yard rule to their advantage during the playoffs last season, handcuffing the Colts receivers during their 24-14 victory in the AFC Championship game.

MVP QB Peyton Manning chucked four picks that cold afternoon while star WR Marvin Harrison had just three catches for 19 yards and no TDs. No disrespect to defensive backs, but skill position offensive players like quarterbacks have always been the poster boys of the league, not the defensive players.

Understand that the Pats didn’t break any rules on the way to winning the Super Bowl. Coach Bill Belichick pointed out that his team didn’t do anything illegal. They simply maximized the rules within the prescribed limits, such as bumping wide receivers within five-yards of the line of scrimmage. This is a tactic Belichick and the Patriots utilized in the 2002 Super Bowl, when they shocked the speedy Rams, 20-17, as a +14 underdog.

Last season, some complained that the Patriots secondary sometimes bumped receivers past the five-yard mark, but weren’t penalized all the times it happened. Regardless, the league warned all clubs that officials are going to strictly enforce the rule this season.

Thus far, they have. It’s okay for cornerbacks to mug a receiver within five yards of the line of scrimmage, but if you do it at six or more, expect to see a yellow flag. A by-product of the enforcement, many believe, is that the NFL wanted to see an increase in scoring.

It’s no secret that the average football fan prefers to see wide-open, high scoring games, rather than grind-it-out defensive battles. It’s no surprise that the Chiefs, the most exciting offensive team in pro football in 2003, are featured four times in prime time this fall, including a Christmas Day battle with rival Oakland. By contrast, the (yawn) stagnant offenses of the Bills, Bears and Cardinals will be seen just twice on prime time.

Despite enforcing the rules, scoring is not up — at least not yet. Oddly, we’ve seen a rejuvenation of the running game thus far and scoring is slightly down (below 40 per game). Through the first four weeks of the NFL season, the "unders" held a 36-24 edge. Every weekend, the "under" had the edge, going 9-7, 10-6, 9-5 and 8-6 from Weeks 1-4.

During that span, Cleveland, Miami and Jacksonville were the only NFL teams to go 4-0 "under" the total. Not surprisingly, those teams have numerous offensive deficiencies, and two are terrific on defense. There were 10 teams that started 3-1 "under." By contrast, there were no teams to start 4-0 "over " and just six teams (Colts, Texans, Raiders, Steelers, Chargers and Saints) to start 3-1. What stands out about those teams is that they have strong offensive weapons and suspect defenses.

One interesting aspect of the enforcement of the passing rule is that completion yardage is actually up to 11.8 yards per pass completion, a half-yard better than in 2003. Overall, passing yards are up 22 yards per game, meaning +11 yards on average per team from a year ago. That changes a four-year downward trend in that statistic since the 1999 season.

Scoring may be down, which league officials probably don’t like, but the enforced rules are assisting the passing game. This is something to keep an eye on if scoring begins to increase the rest of the season, which is a possibility.