Fantasy Football: How Does the Outlier 2020 Season Affect Our Outlook?

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Scoring and yards were up in 2020, way up! In fact, the number of total points scored by all NFL teams was a record 12,692 points, which obliterated the previous record by over 700 points. Pundits typically consider this incredible scoring surge an effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Empty or sparsely attended NFL stadiums almost certainly played a huge role in the dramatic increase in offensive efficiency, which makes sense because it has long been theorized that a loud NFL stadium generally benefits NFL defenses and affects the psyche of visiting players. But empty stadiums could not have caused the 2020 offensive surge alone. Indeed, not every NFL stadium was empty in 2020. Regardless, as interesting a case study as it may be to study the effects of attendance on the 2020 NFL season, the data and analysis are unhelpful to fantasy players thinking about 2021 because we (hopefully) won’t see empty NFL stadiums during regular-season NFL football games this year or hopefully ever again.

Surely, several other reasons caused NFL defenses to be ineffective at stopping NFL offenses, in general, in 2020. Perhaps, the lack of a pre-season, or more accurately, the disjointed, shortened, and irregular training camp, impaired NFL defenses’ ability to stop NFL offenses at a typical rate. Mike Wright recently hypothesized that a shorted NFL training camp was a major contributor to the 2020 offensive surge, comparing 2020’s offensive surge to a similar offensive surge in 2011 after the NFL Lockout. The unusual training camp, with social distancing guidelines, certainly had some impact in putting defenses on their heels, although other factors about the strange 2020 year likely also applied. But let’s look and see if Mike is Right (pun intended), and more importantly, see if 2012’s data can guide our expectations for 2021.

Are 2011 and 2020 Comparable?

To begin, it is almost entirely unfair to compare 2011 to 2020. In 2020, players were tested daily for coronavirus, sometimes leading to rescheduled bye weeks or the quarantining of high-profile players, such as Cam Newton in October. Also, the 2011 Lockout ended on August 4, 2011, canceling only one pre-season game (the Hall of Fame Game) and only about two weeks of training camp. In contrast, the entire preseason was canceled in 2020, whereas the NFL conducted a relatively “full” training camp duration. Still, nothing about 2020’s offseason program was “normal”. No NFL teams participated in off-season training activities (“OTAs”), and strict COVID-19 protocols resulted in a different schedule and unusual way of life for many players. So basically, the question we are trying to answer here today is “does an abnormal offseason lead to more scoring?”. The answer is unequivocally yes, at least based on our very small, two-season sample size. Here is a chart of NFL scoring since 2010:

 

As shown above, 2011, like 2020, saw an increase in total scoring and total yardage. Not nearly the dramatic increase that we saw in 2020, but an increase, nonetheless. So, albeit tiny, we do have a two-season sample size suggesting that training camp continuity is important. In case you cannot tell from the graph, 2011 saw a 0.65% increase in scoring but a notable 3.21% increase in yardage gained, and 2020 saw an 8.66% increase in scoring and a 3.21% increase in yardage gained (note: on average, scoring has increased by 1.27% and yardage has increased by 0.7% year-to-year).

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But what is more interesting is that even though 2011 saw a sizable increase in yardage gained, and a moderate increase in scoring, 2012 produced more yardage and more scoring. If 2011 were an outlier year for offensive performance, then 2012’s offensive numbers should have been noticeably worse, but they were not. Perhaps the changes in the collective bargaining agreement had more impact on NFL scoring than any training camp disruptions…

Did Defenses Improve After Missing Some Training Camp?

Still, let’s consider scoring on a week-to-week basis because maybe defenses got better over time in 2011 and 2020 once they became acclimated to the NFL season.

In both 2020 and 2011, defenses got slightly better in the middle of the year but then got worse at the end of the year. This is likely a reflection of defenses adjusting to offensive tendencies after offenses have generated some film, but then offenses re-adjusting to those defensive changes (something you’d expect to see every year). What is important in these two charts is that offensive output late in the season matched or exceeded offensive output from earlier in the season. This suggests that the lack of a training camp didn’t affect NFL defenses much at all, or it affected them across an entire season. The former appears to be the more plausible conclusion.

As such, I believe that training camp disruption is nothing more than narrative. I think the most important piece of data reviewed today is the trendline shown in Graphs 1 and 2 above, which shows a general increase in NFL offensive output over the past decade. That trendline is the best predictor for 2021. It suggests, if extrapolated, that 2020 was an outlier year in offensive efficiency, but 2021 should still result in more yards and scoring than 2019.

How This Affects 2021

There is no doubt that COVID-19 affected NFL play dramatically. But the unusual nature of training camp does not appear to have had a large effect on 2020 if we can make certain assumptions regarding the similarity between 2020 and 2011. Instead, the offensive surge in 2020 likely comes from other factors, like important defensive players opting out, the lack of fan noise, and other unusual COVID-19 protocols. Most of these factors are gone in 2021, so I think it’s fair to say that 2021 will look more like 2019, from an offensive output perspective, than it will 2020. Instead, we should expect the typical year-to-year increase in offensive efficiency that the larger, 10-year sample shows.

Thus, when projecting NFL players for 2021, it’s important to consider that 2020 appears to be an outlier, particularly in touchdown scoring. Be careful not to fall trap to extrapolation based on a small sample size, especially when the sample appears to be a clear outlier.

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