Chiefs-Rams scorefest a harbinger of NFL’s future — to a point

NFL

Still sweeping up after Monday night’s Rams-Chiefs points party at the L.A. Coliseum, fighting through the fog and wondering…

Did that really happen? Was it as awesome as it felt at the time? Is this just the way it’s going to be now in the NFL?

The answers are yes, yes and … sort of. Yes, the Rams did beat the Chiefs 54-51 in a game that featured more touchdowns (14) than the Buffalo Bills have scored this season (13). It’s the first NFL game ever in which each team scored at least 50. And yes, the entertainment value was through the roof. How often in this life do things live up to their advance hype?

But in terms of whether this is the kind of game we should expect to see all the time now, the answer’s a little more complicated. No way is every game going to be 54-51 from here on out, but the POSSIBILITY of a 54-51 game has bought a house at the end of the cul-de-sac and isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Monday night showed us the direction in which the NFL is heading, and has been heading for some time. Statistically, and in terms of pace and excitement, Monday’s game wasn’t much different from last year’s Super Bowl. This thing’s not about to self-correct and turn the other direction, probably ever. Monday night was the culmination of years of rules changes that protect QBs and receivers and favor pass-happy offenses, and of a wave of head-coaching hires that come from the offensive side of the ball.

Of the 20 head coaches hired in the NFL in the past three years, 15 came from offensive backgrounds, and you shouldn’t expect that trend to change any time soon. If you’re an owner considering making a coaching change this offseason and you watched Sean McVay against Andy Reid on Monday night, you’re thinking to yourself, “How do I get some of that?” The head coach you hire is almost certainly going to be a guy who convinces you he has a binderful of fancy new ideas about how to score points. You need to do it to win. Of the bottom 16 teams in the NFL right now in points per game, only one (Washington, 6-4) has a winning record.

The league-wide scoring average per game right now is 48.4 points (combined for both teams), which would be the highest since the 1970 merger if it holds up all year. (And that is an “IF,” as the bad-weather games are right around the corner.) Only eight teams in league history have averaged more points per game through the first 11 weeks of a season than this year’s Rams have (35.4), and two of those eight are this year’s Chiefs (36.7) and Saints (37.8).

The scoring revolution you’re seeing is real, and it’s no accident. Chiefs-Rams was the highest-rated Monday Night Football game in four years, up 57 percent over last year’s Week 11 Monday night game. The league likes it like this and will continue to encourage scoring in any and every way it can. The last couple of years have been rough ones for the NFL as an entertainment product, and since that’s what it is at its core, the league has a vested interest in making itself as entertaining as possible.

I still don’t believe it’s as simple and dramatic, however, as “Football as we know it is over.” We’re not ready yet to go all the way into the hand-wringing about defense being dead. Scoring is up, sure, but that 48.4 points per game is only 1.6 more (less than a point per team per game) than the previous high in 2013. Heck, the third-highest-scoring season in league history was 1948, when games averaged 46.4 points.

What’s going on is still more evolutionary than revolutionary, if only because there aren’t that many teams that can score 50 points in a game. Look at Thursday’s Thanksgiving games schedule. You wouldn’t be surprised to see the Falcons and Saints both creep into the 40s, but you don’t expect it from Lions/Bears or Dallas/Washington. Not every team has a Patrick Mahomes AND a Tyreek Hill AND a Travis Kelce AND a Kareem Hunt AND a Sammy Watkins AND an underrated monster offensive line.

And if you came out of Monday night thinking defense is doomed, you weren’t watching very closely. Of the 14 touchdowns scored in the game, three were scored by defensive players. Not set up by defensive players, but actually scored by a defensive player crossing the goal line with the ball in his hands. The highest-paid player on the field was Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who had two strip-sacks of Mahomes without which the Chiefs might actually have blown the Rams out.

Is it harder than ever for defenses? Yup. Is it going to get any easier any time soon? Nope. The days of being able to keep teams from moving the ball up and down the field on you are just about gone. But what will happen now on the defensive side is that game-changing plays and players will become even more valuable. A guy like Donald or Khalil Mack, who can disrupt even the most dynamic passing offenses once or twice a game, will cash in with a huge contract, as both of those guys did in September. A cornerback who can truly cover receivers the way basically no one did Monday night will become one of the league’s rarest and most valuable commodities. Look ahead to next spring’s draft. Teams are already talking up the game-wrecking defensive line prospects like Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and Houston’s Ed Oliver. If those guys live up to their hype and expected draft slots, they’ll be as rich as the top quarterbacks when the time comes for their big extensions.

The game is changing, significantly. Of that there can be no doubt. A game like Monday night’s would have shocked the world 10 or 15 years ago, where in 2018 it thrilled us by doing what we hoped and expected it would do. Scoring is likely to continue to go up, even if only incrementally. New head coaches are likely to continue to come from the offensive side of the ball, as scoring becomes more and more the focus.

But football as we knew it isn’t dead. It’s simply evolving — and in a thrilling direction. Monday night was partly a sign of where things stand, partly a sign of where things are headed and entirely a dazzling spectacle of athletic brilliance. If what the NFL is selling now is that last thing, it’s going to be very happy to keep on selling it.

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