Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Super Bowl and conference championship point differentials over time

Following this year's superb* Super Bowl, Steve Sailer wondered if the big game keeps getting better. He writes:
My impression is that Super Bowls are seldom the stinkers they used to be so regularly.
To try and quantify this, I looked at point differentials for every Super Bowl and averaged them by decade in an attempt to get some sense of how accurate that impression is:

Decade
PtDif
'60s
17.3
'70s
11.6
'80s
21.9
'90s
14.2
'00s
9.8

I was introduced to football as a second-grader living in Coppell, a Dallas suburb, the year the Cowboys put an exclamation mark on the NFC East's domination of the Bills. The eighties, though, is the decade when some of the most lopsided games in the league's history occurred. Just take a look at Super Bowls 18-24. Only the Montana-Esiason matchup was 'worth' watching.

Yet as Steve points out, there are ineptly played games where the final score nonetheless ends up being close, as the seventh Super Bowl illustrated. Defensive ineptness isn't something spectators tend to get too upset over, as long as it isn't limited exclusively to one side. For a general audience, the higher scoring, the better. The average combined total score in Super Bowls by decade:

Decade
AvgPts
'60s
36.3
'70s
37.0
'80s
49.7
'90s
53.4
'00s
46.1

Super Bowl 46 comes in on the low-end of scoring by the standards of the last few decades, adding to the perception that it was a boring game. This seemingly permanent shift towards higher scoring that has been firmly in place for the last few decades is probably the biggest reason games today feel better than they did when Steve was a kid. Something around 34-31 is probably ideal in terms of maximizing viewer satisfaction.

Steve also recalls observing when he was younger that:
Conference championship games were often thrilling, but Super Bowls were typically a waste of time.
Using the same simple point differential method employed previously, the following table additionally includes the average point differential for conference championship games by decade from the time of the NFL-AFL merger to the present:

Decade
SB Dif
Conf Dif
'70s
11.6
14.5
'80s
21.9
14.0
'90s
14.2
13.2
'00s
9.8
11.7

My historical impression is that conference championship games have been a lot better since I started following the league than they were when before then, but maybe that's skewed by the fact that shutouts didn't used to be the rarity that they are today. As late as the mid-eighties, the NFC championship game featured three consecutive shutouts in a row, as the Bears (who proceeded the following year to shutout LA), Rams, and Redskins were each held to zero. It's only happened once since in either conference since then, when the Giants drubbed the Vikings during the '00-'01 post-season.

* A commonly held perception of the game is that while it was unarguably competitive, it was boring. The Super Bowl draws twice the number of viewers that each conference championship does, and they're of course more watched than any of the other contests throughout the season are. So it's probably not much of a stretch to say that the majority of Super Bowl viewers aren't really fans of the league. For many of them, it's the only NFL game they'll watch all year.

I understand that perspective (though it's not one I share). From it, huge gains, momentous errors, and lots of lead changes are exciting highlights (along with the commercials, which have become a great selling point in getting people who have no interest in the sport to watch the game at parties) in an otherwise bland four hours of faceless men running into each other. The only especially memorable play was Mario Manningham's terrific catch (off a beautifully placed Manning pass) along the sideline just minutes after he'd given up a reception by losing track of the sideline. There was only one turnover, and it might as well have been a punt. Both offenses were efficient and both defenses played well, with the difference being a series of dropped balls by Patriots' receivers and Brady's bizarre intentional grounding that resulted in a safety on the first play from scrimmage for New England's offense.

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