Plenty of controversy has surrounded the term "running up the score" in recent years. The most common center of this controversy has been the New England Patriots and their record-setting offensive performances in 2007 as a whole, as well as various times in 2009.
Is this controversy warranted? Is "running up the score" really such a bad thing?
There are several reasons why "running up the score" is not the unsportsmanlike terror that many portray it as, and I will cover some of them here.
1. To Prevent Come-From-Behind Wins
On January 3, 1993, the Houston Oilers held a 35-3 lead in the early third quarter against the Buffalo Bills in a wild-card game. After a 28-point third quarter, the Bills managed to win the game in overtime.
On January 21, 2007, the New England Patriots held a 21-3 lead over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game. Everybody that knows anything about football knows what happened in that game, as the Colts won 38-34 and went on to win the Super Bowl.
The point from these two examples is that miracle comebacks do happen. While they are rare, it is impossible for any team to predict when or how they will happen, and both of the above cases eliminated the losing team from the playoffs. The way to prevent these comebacks is for teams to realize that the game is never over and to keep playing for 60 minutes.
2. Defensive Players are Paid to Stop the Offense
This one is an often overlooked, but rather simple concept: there are 11 players on the defensive side of the ball who are paid to prevent the offense from scoring.
The NFL is not little league football with middle schoolers playing. The players make millions of dollars to do a job, and get burned when they don't do their job. If a defense is running a shutout, should they show mercy on the offense and allow a free touchdown?
I wish I could remember who said this quote, but I remember hearing this during a game: "It's the defense's job to stop the offense. It's not the offense's job to stop itself."
If a defense doesn't like getting steamrolled, the solution is simple: play better defense to prevent the opposing offense from scoring.
3. Seeing an Opponent's Backups Does Not Make a Team Feel Better
When a defense gets destroyed, the coaches know it, the players know it, and the fans know it. Seeing a lower number on the scoreboard doesn't make anybody feel better about that.
It is actually quite the opposite. If I were an NFL player and I saw my opponent take out its starters and line up Brian Hoyer against me instead of Tom Brady, that would only embarrass me more, because it gives the appearance that the opponent is treating me like a practice game for its backups.
If, instead of that, a team saw their opponent playing their hardest for the entire game, they would feel that the other team has enough respect for the losing team to put its best players on the field against them.
4. The Entertainment Value of the Game
Some games appear to be quite finished by halftime or in the early third quarter. At this point in games like this, a team will pull out its starters, slow down the pace of the game, and the game will have the feel of a preseason contest. Fans have put quite a chunk of change into buying tickets for football games and deserve more than that.
If, instead of this approach, teams played the whole game, it would allow the teams to put on a show for the fans instead of the drag that normally accompanies blowout victories.
5. The History of the Game
This is one that is not talked about frequently but is a very important point to make. Many NFL records have stood because they simply have not been broken. Many others have stood because the supposed "ethical" practice of not running up the score have prevented them from being touched.
One game that stands out in this regard is last year's game between the Patriots and Titans. For those who aren't familiar with this game, the Patriots won 59-0 with quarterback Tom Brady throwing an NFL record five touchdown passes in the second quarter. The Patriots pulled out their starters in the early third quarter of the game.
It was unfortunate, as the Patriots could have recorded the greatest single-game offensive performance in NFL history. Here are a few numbers from the game, using yards and touchdowns per drive as well as the pace of the game to project what could have been:
Tom Brady Actual Performance: 29/34 comp/att, 380 passing yards, 6 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 152.8 quarterback rating
What could have happened if he finished the game:
51/60 comp/att, 676 passing yards, 10 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 152.8 quarterback rating
As you can see, Brady was on pace to easily break the record for passing yards in a game and passing touchdowns in a game. The Patriots were also on pace for 105 points in the game by one team, which would shatter the NFL record of 72 points.
When teams pull out their starters early in a performance like this, they cheat the history of the game and us as fans, because we could have been witnesses to the greatest single-game performance by an offense in NFL history.
There are many other instances where amazing performances could have been legendary if teams would have played their starters the entire game instead of showing mercy on their opponents.
Is that fair to the players whose names might have gone down in the record books but failed to do so simply because they did not want the other team to feel bad?
It seems as though there is simply too much talk surrounding the idea of "running up the score" when there is hardly anything negative about it. The game is played for 60 minutes and it is the responsibility of the opposing defense to prevent the score from getting out of control.
With the newly-found moral limitations on teams who would otherwise play the full game, we cheat the entertainment of the game to its fans, but we also cheat NFL history by not giving the NFL's best players a chance at chasing some of the most impressive single game records, and we cheat the players who might have broken those records.