If you thought NFL teams looked raggedy, incohesive and even incoherent during the First Week of the 2017 season, you aren’t crazy.
If you thought too many NFL quarterbacks were throwing wildly or running wild — to dodge aggressive packs of hunting pass rushers — you were on target … even if the QBs weren’t.
Take a look at my research here; I compared this First Week to the previous opening weeks in recent NFL seasons. And when I reference to points, yards, penalties and turnovers per game, the number represents the combined total of both teams in the game:
— The 15 opening games of 2017 produced an average of 40.4 points scored … the lowest scoring average for Week One since 2010.
— Touchdowns from scrimmage on offense: an average 4.33 per game … lowest since 2010
— Scrimmage yards per game, 661.7 … lowest since 2010
— Quarterbacks collectively posted an 87.1 passer rating … lowest since 2012
— The yards per passing attempt, 7.09 … lowest since 2010
— Touchdown-pass percentage 3.8 … lowest since 2010
— The touchdown/interception ratio was 1.52 … worst since 2012
— The sack percentage of 7.1 percent was the highest (worst) since 2011
— Turnovers: 2.7 per game … highest since 2013
— Penalties: 13.8 per game … highest since 2014
As the late great Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi would say, and did say, as NFL Films recorded during a game in the 1960s: “What the hell is going out there?”
There were reasons for the sloppiness and disjointed play. Not all 30 teams looked disorganized and disheveled in Week One; several were fantastic. But for the most part — and the numbers I shoveled up reaffirmed this — too many NFL teams looked like they were trying out for a new version of the film “The Longest Yard.”
These teams could have used more practice time. They needed more full-pad, full-speed drills with plenty of hitting to get them acclimated to the speed and collisions of regular season games. The starters needed more reps in preseason contests, to develop chemistry between offensive linemen, and to calibrate the timing between quarterbacks and receivers.
That isn’t possible.
In 2011, as part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement between NFL players and owners, new practice rules were implemented. The good-faith guidelines were put in place to enhance player safety, and reduce the players’ exposure to hard hits and demanding practice marathons that wear out their bodies.
NFL teams no longer have as much time to polish up, get used to game-speed tempo, foster synergy, and develop that inner cadence that can help all five members of the offensive line move as one unit, synchronized to better protect the quarterback from those mad, swarming pass rushers.
And NFL coaches are terrified of losing starting players to injury in exhibition games. They hold their starters out of these dress rehearsals, or use them sparingly. The coaches’ reluctance is understandable. Why put their most important players in harm’s way in a game that doesn’t count?
Why take the risk of blowing up your team’s regular-season goals with season-changing injuries to essential players in a meaningless August game? Every summer, we see prominent stars are lost for the season because of accidents in preseason games. This summer, it was New England wide receiver Julian Edelman, who blew out a knee in an exhibition game at Detroit. Tom Brady lost his most reliable and productive target for the entire 2017 season.
And there is another problem that explains this rag-tag offensive line play: a huge number of college teams use spread offenses, with no pro-style sets. Many O-linemen go through a season without ever setting up in a three-point stance.
Pass blocking in the NFL is substantially more complicated and challenging and requires a mastery of technique. There are fewer and fewer plug-in-and-play O-linemen. Many come into the NFL as projects that require a complete makeover in basic NFL fundamentals. That’s why, in the 2017 NFL Draft, only two offensive linemen were chosen in the first round … and the first wasn’t picked until No. 20 overall. That was unprecedented in modern NFL times.
In the NFL’s opening slate of games, quarterbacks were running around, running away, to escape pass rushers who broke through porous offensive lines.
Of the 30 teams played in Week One, and six scored fewer than 10 points.
And 11 of the 30 had no more than one touchdown on offense.
And only eight of the the 30 had three or more touchdowns on offense
As Gregg Rosenthal reported at NFL.com, 46 percent of the offenses gained fewer than 300 yards in Week One. In the previous three Week Ones (2014-16), only 22 percent of offenses were held to fewer than 300 yards.
I interviewed Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner on Thursday and asked him about the unsightly offensive football on display in the first week. The former St. Louis Rams great did not hesitate to identify the issue.
“I think we’re starting to see the CBA (collective bargaining agreement), which has a lot of benefits for players in protecting them … we’re starting to see (the impact) come into play more and more come regular season. The lack of time to just practice,” Warner said.
“I look at quarterbacks and you’re at the point now where half of your reps are in a walkthrough. And I don’t care how good you are, it’s easy to see things in a walkthrough, when the defense is walking a blitz or showing a shift in coverage.
“It’s completely different when you’re live speed … and specifically offensive linemen that feel the contact and what you’re going to be dealing with on an every down basis (in the regular season.)
“That’s the big thing, the fatigue and technique staying there for 60-65 snaps, when you’re use to not getting nearly that much. You’re not having two-a-days, you’re not getting those reps, you’re not seeing all the different blitzes, and being able to work tackle-end stunts, and those types of things as an offensive line, where you have to work together.”
Warner is certainly a proponent of player safety, but he doesn’t enjoy what he’s seeing early on. A lack of quality. A lack of entertainment value. It’s almost as if the teams’ first regular-season game becomes a preseason game that they needed to get ready for prime time. And that’s really how it is. The only way to sharpen up is to play — and get all of the live-game reps — in real football games.
“I am a firm believer that the less practice time you get the more you’re going to see struggles, especially early in the season,” Warner said. “It’s kind of one of those laws of diminishing returns. At what point does all this really good stuff, that we’re trying to do to protect players, does it hurt the game so much that people are saying ‘Well, it’s not worth watching because the quality of play is not where it has been in the past.’ ”
Unfortunately there are no good answers.
Thanks for reading …