Orange Bowl: 70-33; Rose Bowl: 45-38; Fiesta Bowl 41-38. All of these scores and, of course, the insane 67-56 scoring orgy in the Alamo Bowl 67-56 between Baylor and Washington make me contemplate Guns N’ Roses eternal question: where do we go from here?
In 2008, “Spreading the Wealth” mulled the points explosion with Longhorn coach Mack Brown’s remark
“I’m sure [defense will catch up], it always has. But we’re not sure how yet.”
I long subscribed to Brown’s default position — offense and defensive advantage ebbs and flows — but I’m beginning to doubt myself. The points-monster just keeps growing. From 1971-82, Rose bowl winners topped 30 points 2 times. From 2001-12, 9 winners scored more than 30. The total score stuns more than the winner. Over the past two seasons, teams combined for 378 points (63 points per game) in the Orange, Rose, and Sugar Bowls. In my junior and senior years of high school, 1977 and 78, they totaled 222 or 37 points per game. (Data available at Sports-reference.com’s Bowl Index).
These shifts appear in pro and high school football also. Over the last two years, the semi-final and final games in the top division of Texas high school playoffs (2011 and prior years) have put up 63 points per game versus 21 in 77 and 78. In the NFL, two teams with defenses ranked near the league bottom, New England and Green Bay, enter the playoffs as number 1 seeds.
In the NFL, the evolution of rules and their enforcement has inexorably led to more effective passing starting with the elimination of “bump and run” in the late 70s to crackdown on defensive holding in the early 2000s to the ever-greater protections extended to QBs. At all levels, strategic developments on offense have effectively expanded the square footage that defenses must defend on each play. While all of these developments have contributed, their long run impacts have been limited by labor supply — young QBs developed in high school and college as effective throwers. After a generation, there are now scads of HS and college quarterbacks running relatively sophisticated passing offenses, developing not only their arms but their minds and eyes. Some of these shifts may be countered by defensive strategy and development of defensive players, but I wonder if some of the rule and strategy changes permanently shift the relative balance between offense and defense.
From a league/consumer standpoint, are these developments “bad”? It’s easy for some middle-aged or older like myself to pine about some bygone golden era and bash the current state of play. What is the optimal amount of scoring? I don’t have reliable data on this question, but I do suspect that fans tire of no scoring (unless they like soccer) or pinball-like scoring. I disliked the heavily run-oriented styles of the 1970s, but I also enjoy seeing good defensive plays, of which there are few are none in a 67-56 game.
While these trends may end, it’s hard to see that happening very soon. In high school and college, teams with strong defenses and much better overall ability than an opponent (say LSU or Alabama) can shut down offenses relatively well. In the pros, with more equalized talent, the tipping point seems determined only by whether a team has a passing proficient QB or not. There’s no “stopping” Brady, Rodgers, or Brees — only hopes of intercepting a tipped pass or pushing them back with a penalty. Even the supposed defensive or run-oriented teams like Pittsburgh often resort to second half passing shootouts against stronger opponents with efficient offenses.