Commentary

Tip Sheet: Lots of inept offenses

Originally Published: November 20, 2009
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Given Cleveland's offensive struggles, a woeful 2009 stretch in which it has not scored more than 20 points in a game and has managed six points or fewer in six of nine outings, few were surprised when the Browns were shut out Monday by Baltimore.

But the Browns, with what could statistically be the league's most inept offense in more than 30 years, aren't the only club struggling to score in 2009.

INSIDE TIP SHEET
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  • In a league that favors offense, and where most of the recent rules changes have been enacted to promote scoring, the 2009 campaign to this point has represented a notable step backward. Through 10 weeks of play, the NFL is averaging 43.38 points per game. That's more than a full point less than the 10-week average for last season (44.49) and less than the full-season average (44.06) for 2008.

    That might not seem like much, but to the NFL power brokers and league image-makers, every point is significant.

    The points-per-game average has increased each of the past three seasons -- from 41.23 points in 2005 to 41.32 in 2006 to 43.38 in 2007 and then 44.06 in 2008. But that string of improved scoring could end this season.

    The Browns, ranked last in the league in total offense, are on pace to score 139 points in 2009. That would be one point fewer than Seattle eked out in 1992, when the Seahawks scored the fewest points in a 16-game season.

    Cleveland, however, is hardly the only franchise having trouble finding the end zone. In this season of offensive futility, Oakland and St. Louis also project to score fewer than 200 points. Since the 16-game schedule went into effect in 1978, there has been only one other season, 1991, when three clubs each scored fewer than 200 points. In fact, entering this season, just 11 teams had posted fewer than 200 points in a year since '78.

    The Browns, Raiders and Rams are averaging fewer than 15 points per game. Four other teams (Redskins, Lions, Chiefs, Bills) are averaging fewer than 17 points. The Rams and Raiders have each scored 10 points or fewer five times this year.

    "It's pretty embarrassing at every level," Cleveland quarterback Brady Quinn said after Monday's shutout.

    The Browns (1-8) have a league-worst five offensive touchdowns this season. By comparison, New Orleans has scored seven defensive touchdowns in 2009.

    Why such offensive futility?

    The three lowest-scoring teams in the league have some common denominators, beginning with terrible play of their quarterbacks. Cleveland has gone back and forth between Derek Anderson and Quinn, and the pair owns a combined passer rating of 40.4. JaMarcus Russell, benched by the Raiders earlier this week, has been a bust, despite his status as the top overall pick in the 2007 draft. Marc Bulger of St. Louis has suffered through an injury and has a passer rating of only 73.0. Bulger, who has more interceptions (33) than touchdown passes (27) in the past 2½ seasons, has managed a rating consistently in the 70 range since his career-best mark of 92.9 in 2006.

    But the offensive woes extend beyond the quarterbacks. None of the three aforementioned teams has a legitimate game-breaker. Cleveland traded its two top receivers (tight end Kellen Winslow and wide receiver Braylon Edwards), has no wideouts with more than 21 catches and just one completion of 40-plus yards. The Raiders, who don't have a wide receiver with more than 16 catches, have only two touchdown passes. St. Louis lacks explosiveness and experience at wide receiver.

    In addition, the three clubs have had little stability on their offensive lines. The teams have combined for 11 different starting offensive line combinations, and they have employed an aggregate 22 different line starters.

    "It certainly has been a challenge," said St. Louis offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. "If it's not one thing [breaking down], it's another."

    A lot of franchises share those sentiments. Through 10 weeks, 19 of the 32 teams have fewer points in 2009 than they scored at the same juncture of the '08 season.

    Another indication of what a difficult year it has been for offenses? There have been eight shutouts through 10 weeks. There were only six shutouts in all of 2008 and five in 2007. St. Louis has been shut out twice, and the Seattle defense has blanked two opponents. Beyond the shutouts, there have been 19 instances in which a club's defense did not surrender an offensive touchdown in a game.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.