National Football League scoring has reached a record because of pass-happy offenses and slow-starting defenses. A less obvious reason may be the league’s replacement officials.
The 1,556 points scored this year are the most through the first two weeks of an NFL season, and Las Vegas oddsmakers are projecting another record-setting output in Week 3, which starts tonight with the New York Giants playing the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte.
With the regular officials locked out in a labor dispute, the backups culled from lower collegiate levels have called 43 pass-interference penalties. That’s a 79 percent increase over the average of 24 for the same period from the previous three seasons, according to Las Vegas-based handicapping information website Pregame.com.
“This different approach to calling the game is contributing to additional scoring,” said Pregame.com founder RJ Bell. “Calling the game with more pass-interference penalties and less offensive-holding penalties encourages more passing.”
NFL scoring has been on the upswing in recent years. The previous record of 1,502 points through the first two weeks was set last season, breaking the mark of 1,442 in 2002.
Only four of the NFL’s 32 teams ran the ball more often than they passed it last season, and quarterbacks Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions all topped 5,000 passing yards. Only two quarterbacks previously had 5,000-yard seasons -- Brees in 2008 and Dan Marino in 1984.
“More aggressive offenses are going to mean more points scored, but also more catastrophic mistakes offensively that give the other team a shorter field,” said Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer, who’s now an NFL analyst for ESPN. “It makes perfect sense that there’s going to be more points scored with the ball in the air more.”
The scoring trend has continued this season with inexperienced officials working the games, as the rising projected point totals at Las Vegas sports books attest.
Last season, the average over/under total -- where bettors wager the total score of a game is higher or lower than the sports book’s projection -- was 43.7 points a game. This week, the average expected point total is 46.1. The over/under for the Giants-Panthers game is 51, the second-highest of any Week 3 game behind the 52.5 for the Saints and Kansas City Chiefs.
The New York Jets and Miami Dolphins have this week’s lowest over/under, at 40 points. The 738 combined points projected by Vegas for Week 3 is a record for a single week, according to Pregame.com’s Bell.
“From a handicapping standpoint, guys have been reluctant to bet games under the total because they feel there will be a few more flags,” said Todd Fuhrman, a former Caesars sportsbook analyst who’s now an industry consultant in Las Vegas. “Some of these games may be a little more wide open just because the officials don’t want to be the one deciding a game late.”
Following a relatively criticism-free first week, the backup officials were slammed by players and the media after Week 2 games were plagued by mistakes and delays.
Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young also put blame on the NFL after the “Monday Night Football” game between the Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos dragged on for 3 hours, 27 minutes. The NFL and the NFL Referees Association are at odds over pay, pensions and operational issues.
“There’s nothing they can do to hurt the demand for the game. So the bottom line is they don’t care,” Young, 50, said of the NFL on ESPN’s post-game coverage. “Player safety? Bring in the Division III officials? It doesn’t matter, because in the end, you’re still going to watch the game. We’re going to complain and moan and gripe. Doesn’t matter.”
Former Indianapolis Colts General Manager Bill Polian said on ESPN that of 100 replacement officials, only 11 may be good enough to work in the NFL at some point with the regulars not banned.
The NFL said this week that its backup officials are “performing admirably under unprecedented scrutiny.”
Oddsmakers in Las Vegas attribute the increase in penalties to officials’ inexperience -- and players trying to take advantage of that -- rather than anything insidious, such as a replacement intentionally affecting the outcome of a game for financial motives.
“It’s a pretty close-knit unit, especially in Nevada, that if something moved crazy somewhere, we’d pick up on it real early on,” Jimmy Vaccaro, director of sports operations at Lucky’s Race and Sports Book, said in a telephone interview. “Not to say nothing can happen, but to move the amount of money you’d think it takes to be worth your while, it’s just not going to happen.”
The higher scores and replacement officials have had no significant effect on the amount bet, Vaccaro said without giving specific figures.
The oddsmakers are accounting for the steady increase in scoring around the NFL, one that’s climbed even further with the new officials throwing flags.
“We’re making the totals higher and higher every week,” Vaccaro said.