Death of the Blowout: 2016 Is the Most Closely Contested Season in NFL History

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 30, 2016

Every Detroit Lions game this season has been decided by a single score.
Every Detroit Lions game this season has been decided by a single score.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

What is the definition of a blowout? There's no universal answer, and it's probably safe to say blowouts exist only in the eye of the beholder. But most of us can agree that an NFL game decided by 30 or more points qualifies. 

The 2016 NFL season has failed to satisfy plenty of fans, and not just in Cleveland or San Francisco. With the league dealing with what feels like a rash of poor officiating while still battling PR nightmares related to concussions, domestic violence and national anthem protests, television ratings have plummeted

In spite of the league's troubles, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is overseeing an increase in competitiveness.
In spite of the league's troubles, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is overseeing an increase in competitiveness.Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

And yet, believe it or not, the NFL has gone nine consecutive weeks without a single team winning or losing by 30 or more points—tied for the longest stretch in modern NFL history (post-1970 AFL-NFL merger).

Altogether, dating back to when the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 34-3 in Week 3, 131 consecutive games have been decided by fewer than 30 points. 

The Browns, 49ers, Chicago Bears and Jacksonville Jaguars haven't won much, but they also haven't been losing by large margins. The Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs haven't lost much, but they also haven't been winning by large margins. 

Nobody has. 

Usually, about 13 or 14 games per season are decided by 30-plus points. The NFL had at least 12 30-point games in each of the last 11 years. But this year, with the season 69 percent complete, there have been just two games that meet that criteria—Philly-Pittsburgh in Week 3 and a 40-7 Arizona Cardinals victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers one week earlier. 

That's it. 

Lowest rate of games decided by 30+ points in a season
SeasonGames played30-point marginsRate (%)
201617721.1
200425693.5
197822483.6
199924893.6
Pro Football Reference (excluding strike-shortened 1982 season)

Typically, there is higher frequency of lopsided games late in the year, but not enough to account for why the NFL is experiencing so many fewer blowouts. At this point last season, there had been six 30-point games. At this point in that blowout-deprived 2004 campaign cited in the table above, the 30-point margin rate was still at 3.4 percent (only 0.1 percent lower than the end-of-season total). 

And while this shouldn't come as breaking news, a decline in lopsided games has resulted in an increase in close contests. 

And the trends tend to support that in particular, because just last year, a record 54.7 percent of contests were decided by one score (eight points or fewer). But at the three-quarter mark this season, that rate has skyrocketed to 59.9 percent. 

Highest rate of games decided by 8 or fewer points in a season
SeasonGames playedOne-score gamesRate (%)
201617710659.9
201525614054.7
199422412154.0
198822412053.6
Pro Football Reference (excluding strike-shortened 1982 season)

Even if we want to broaden our parameters for what qualifies as a blowout, the league is on pace to set a new record low when it comes to games decided by three-plus scores (17 points or more). 

Lowest rate of games decided by 3+ scores in a season
SeasonGames playedThree-score gamesRate (%)
20161773016.9
19942244620.5
19962405522.9
20152566023.4
Pro Football Reference (excluding strike-shortened 1982 season)

Again, when it comes to year-over-year comparisons, the one-score game rate has increased and the three-score game rate has decreased during the final five weeks of two of the last four seasons. There's a chance we get fewer one-score games and more three-score, four-score and 30-point games during the final month of the 2016 campaign, but precedents indicate the rates won't change by more than a percentage point or two. 

This represents almost a reversal from the early days of the Super Bowl era. In 1973, for example, there were more three-score games than one-score games. This season, one-score games outnumber three-score games by more than a three-to-one margin (106 to 30). And between 1966 and 1968, 30-point victories were about 10 times more common than they are now (11.4 percent versus 1.1 percent).

Back then, the league had about two blowouts and about a half-dozen one-score games per week. Now, you might get a single blowout and about nine one-score games every week. 

When we compare one-score game rates and three-score game rates dating back to the beginning of the Super Bowl era, we can see how much more competitive NFL games have become over the course of the last half-century. 

Brad Gagnon/Bleacher Report

The gap separating this era from the 1960s and 1970s is easy to explain. The league was somewhat unbalanced after the merger, and parity wasn't an NFL trademark until free agency and the salary cap were implemented in 1993 and 1994, respectively. 

NFL close game/blowout rates before/after free agency
Years1-score games3-score games30-point games
1970-199245.9%28.6%6.2%
1993-present50.0%26.6%5.2%
Pro Football Reference

But that still doesn't explain the recent surge in close contests or the resultant decline in blowouts (or vice versa). It's probably not a coincidence, though, that the numbers have transformed considerably since the new collective bargaining agreement was adopted in 2011.

That CBA introduced salary floors, which raised the minimum amount of money teams had to commit to their payroll on an annual basis. It also brought with it increased regulations on padded practices, offseason organized team activities and training camps. 

It's possible the salary-cap changes brought about more parity by further closing the gap between teams in it to win it and teams looking to save money, and it's possible practice restrictions have prevented elite teams from separating from the pack. 

Whatever the reason, the reality is that while the rulebook, the officials and the penalties themselves have caused many fans to label the NFL as the No Fun League, professional football has never been more competitive, and games have never been more exciting. 

As a fan, you may not like the commissioner, the referees and a lot of the players on the field. But trends indicate that you've been spoiled of late by the most closely contested stretch in modern NFL history. 

So it's not all bad. 

               

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.