Futterman, Matthew. 2009. "Behind the NFL's Touchdown Binge As Scoring Soars, One Professor Sees Parallels in Nature; the 'River Basin' Theory." Wall Street Journal (10 September).
The NFL has become so fast and efficient that last season, teams each scored 22.03 points per game, the highest since 1967, while all the league's 32 teams combined for 11,279 points—the most in NFL history.
The game has become less cluttered. Offenses averaged just 3.09 turnovers (interceptions and fumbles) per game, the lowest of all time by more than 10%, and offensive lines allowed just 4.04 sacks per game—also the lowest ever. Even place kickers set a new mark: They made a record-high 84.5% of their field-goal attempts.
Adrian Bejan a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University, likens the NFL's evolution to a river's effect on its basin. (Stay with us, here.) Over time, a river relentlessly wears away its banks and, as a result, water flows faster and faster toward its mouth. When obstacles fall in its way, say, a tree, or a boulder -- or in the case of an NFL offense, beefy linebackers like the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis or the Chicago Bears' Brian Urlacher -- it will figure out how to wear those away, too.
"The game is a flow system, a river basin of bodies that are milling around trying to find the most effective and easiest way to move," says Prof. Bejan. "Over time you will end up with the right way to play the game, with the patterns that are the most efficient."
In 1996, Prof. Bejan, who began following the NFL after coming to the U.S. from Romania to attend college, came up with a theory about natural phenomena known as the Constructal Law. The theory, he says, can be used to explain the evolution of efficiency in everything from river basins to mechanical design. By extension, he says, it could also be applied to the explosion of offense in the NFL.
Tom Lemming, the recruiting expert and analyst for CBS College Sports, says no one on the college level has figured out how to neutralize the speed of the spread offense, either. "The offense always sets the agenda, and the defense plays catch-up," Mr. Lemming says.
Considered more broadly, Constructal Law may be the closest thing to a grand unified theory for the evolution of sports. In a sports context, the river is the relentless search for the easiest way to score or win more often. In soccer, there is the indefensible through-ball, passed between two defenders to a striker sprinting into open space. In basketball, the two-handed set shot eventually gave way to finding the tallest, fastest players who could jump the highest and dunk.