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25 Nov 2005

Too Deep Zone: Zero-Point Energy

by Mike Tanier

The Jets locker room was somber. The team had just suffered a 27-0 loss to the Broncos. Its season was falling apart. Team owner Woody Johnson tried to encourage the troops, but his silence about Herm Edwards' future spoke volumes. "It's about as low as it gets, to be honest with you," Curtis Martin said of his team's faded fortunes.

Earlier, in Cleveland, the Browns celebrated their first shutout victory since rejoining the NFL in 1999. "I believe this is a turning point for the Cleveland Browns as a whole," rookie receiver Braylon Edwards said of the 22-0 win. "This is what we can do."

Such is the nature of the shutout. It's more than a mere win or a loss: it's a source of chest-thumping pride for the victor and an alarm bell for the loser. Somehow, a 31-7 defeat doesn't carry quite the sting of a 24-0 loss, nor is a win quite as sweet as when the opponent is held scoreless.

Shutouts don't happen every day in the NFL; a two-shutout Sunday like last week is rare. When they do occur, shutouts can seem like signposts: turning points in a team's season, or even its history.

Zeroed In

Counting the postseason, there have been 52 shutouts in the NFL in the past six years. That figure shows how infrequent shutouts are: only about one out of every 30 games is a shutout, so your home team will only be involved in one (winner or loser) in a typical two-year span.

They may be getting more rare. There were only four shutouts in the 2004 season, the lowest total in recent history. Their have only been three this season. High offensive stats across the league may have contributed to last year's low total, but the figure may also have been a fluke, as many bad teams avoided shutouts by losing 24-3 or 41-7.

Shutouts were once almost as common in football as they are in hockey. In 1940, there were just 10 NFL teams and a total of 56 games, including the championship. There were 11 shutouts that year, including one scoreless tie and one of the most famous championship routs in history: the Bears' 73-0 thrashing of the Redskins.

Since then, strategies and rules have changed, offense has increased dramatically, and improvements in stadium conditions (no one covers the field with hay at night anymore) have made the days of the 0-0 tie a distant memory. But then, as now, no team wanted to suffer the embarrassment of getting blanked. Legendary sportswriter Red Smith said of Redskins owner George Preston Marshall after the 73-0 game: "When it was done, every hair in his raccoon coat had turned white."

Standard Routs

In the typical modern shutout, the final score is 26-0. The winning team typically out-gains the loser in total yards by a margin of 336-192. The most telling stats in a typical shutout are often the turnover totals: winners have turned the ball over 0.85 times per game in the last five years, while the losers cough it up an average of 3.52 times per game (all averages were calculated using 2000-2004 data).

But shutouts come in all shapes and sizes. When we think of shutouts, we often think of brutal beatings like that Bears-Redskins game in 1940. But only 20 of the 52 shutouts in the last six years have come by a margin of over 30 points. There was only one such game in 2004 - Seattle's 34-0 win over the Niners -- and only the Giants' 36-0 romp over the Redskins qualifies this year.

More often than not, a team coasting to a blowout victory either stops scoring or gives up a late score while running out the clock. That's why so many recent shutouts – 14 in the last five years -- have come by scores of 19-0 or lower. In these relatively tight games, the defense cannot afford to let up.

The closest shutout of the last five years was a 6-0 victory by the Jets over the Steelers in 2003. It was December, it was snowing, and both teams would finish 6-10. Curtis Martin ran for 174 yards, the Steelers missed two field goals, but Bill Cowher was atypically upbeat. "Games like that are the games you dream about when you're a kid," he said. "It was a classic game, a game for the purists."

The most lopsided shutout of recent history, at least in terms of the final score, was a 49-0 win by the Chiefs over the Cardinals in 2002. "You've got to feel bad for those guys," Chiefs guard Brian Walters said after that game.

That Bears-Redskins game in 1940 was the biggest rout in history; for the record, the Redskins nearly scored early in the game, but Charley Malone dropped a Sammy Baugh pass in the end zone. When asked if the first quarter score might have made a difference, Baugh quipped "Sure. It would have been 73-7." Coincidently, the Bears were involved in both of the tightest non-tie shutouts in history. The Packers beat the Bears 2-0 in 1933, and the Bears returned the favor with their own 2-0 win in 1938.

Shut Out in the Cold

Winter is shutout season. Of the 52 regular season shutouts in the past six seasons, 22 occurred in December or January. September is the second most likely shutout month, with 11 of them: a large percentage of shutouts occur at the very beginning or very end of the season.

December brings two conditions favorable to shutouts: bad weather and teams that have rolled onto their backs. The Patriots blanked the Dolphins 12-0 in 2003 on an icy day when Foxboro became a winter wonderland. Back in 2002, the hapless Bears sent third-string QB Henry Burris out in the season finale to absorb the brunt of the Buccaneers defense. The result: four interceptions and a 15-0 loss. If the snow is falling and/or Spergon Wynn, Tim Hasselbeck, or Kliff Kingsbury is taking snaps, the time is ripe for a shutout.

September shutouts are often seen as signs of a horrible season to come, but most Patriots fans remember that the 2003 season began with a 31-0 drubbing at the hands of the Bills. The Patriots returned the favor at the end of the regular season, handing the same Bills team their own 31-0 defeat, one of three shutout wins by the eventual champions that year.

Those 2003 Patriots were the best of the last six years to endure a shutout, assuming that the Redskins don't rebound and win the Super Bowl this year. The weakest teams to blank an opponent in the last six seasons were the 2004 Jaguars, who finished 5-11 but beat the Texans 27-0 late in the year in a "nothing to play for" game, and the 2000 Niners, who beat the Bears 17-0 in a season finale that left them 6-10 for the year. This year's Browns may join that list.

Not Everybody Blanks

Obviously, most shutouts are the result of a very good team facing a very bad one. Shutout winners average 10.22 victories per year; losers average 6.47 victories (again, 2000-2004 data only). 31 of the victorious teams of the last five years finished the season with 10 or more wins; 29 of the losers had 10 or more losses.

But truly great teams don't always produce shutouts, and bad teams sometimes avoid the fate. The Eagles, consistently excellent until this year, have produced no shutouts. The Colts have been contenders for five years without blanking an opponent. The Broncos hadn't held an opponent scoreless since 1997 before beating the Jets last week.

Meanwhile, the 2004 Dolphins, a team that seemed incapable of moving the ball, was never shut out, nor were the horrendous 2001 Panthers or 2000 Chargers, both 1-15 teams, one of which was led for much of the season by Ryan Leaf.

Of course, defense-oriented teams are more likely to hold an opponent scoreless than an offense-first team like the Colts. The 1976 Steelers held five opponents scoreless, going three straight games without allowing a point during one stretch. The 2000 Ravens, the greatest defensive team in recent history, recorded four shutouts. The Ravens and Bucs each have six shutouts in the past six years, while the Patriots, Jaguars, and Jets have three each.

With the best defenses in recent memory dishing out the shutouts, it figures that the league's more hapless franchises were on the receiving end. The Bengals and Browns have each been held scoreless six times in six years. Following them on the list are two surprises: the Dolphins have been blanked five times, including Sunday's loss, and the Cowboys have been shut out four times in six years.

Less Than Zero

Back to those orange-clad Ohio teams for a moment. The Bengals and Browns combined to make the 2000 season truly unique in terms of shutouts.

Since 2001, no team has recorded back-to-back shutouts, nor has any team been shut out in two straight games. But in 2000, thanks mostly to the Bengals and Browns, three teams went two straight weeks without allowing a point.

The eventual champion Ravens got things rolling in September, beating the Bengals 37-0 and the Browns 12-0. The Steelers followed hot on the heels of their Baltimore rivals, beating the Bengals 15-0 and the Browns 22-0 in successive weeks. Late in the year, the Titans feasted on the Browns 24-0 (by that point, the Browns were experimenting with wide receivers at quarterback), then altered the formula by beating the Cowboys 31-0.

For the record, the Jaguars blanked both the Browns and Bengals that season, but not in successive weeks. Those Browns would finish 3-13, the Bengals 4-12. The Jaguars' 48-0 win over the Browns was one of the most lopsided games in NFL history, with Jacksonville out-gaining the Browns by a 449-53 margin. "Things just keep happening," Browns quarterback Doug Pederson (not the game's starter) said after the loss. The Browns and Bengals were two of the worst teams of the last decade; this year, the Niners and Texans are bad enough to skew the shutout numbers now that winter is about to roll in.

Awful teams like the 2000 Browns are sometimes shut out twice in a season. Good teams usually escape that fate. The best team to be held scoreless twice in a season was the 2001 Dolphins, a team that would finish 11-5 despite a 24-0 loss to the Jets and a 21-0 loss to the Niners. Then there's the strange case of the 2002 Panthers, who were swept by the Falcons by scores of 41-0 and 30-0; both teams were .500 in all other of their other games. "I think it's fairly evident that we're not a very good football team when we play the Atlanta Falcons," Panthers coach John Fox deadpanned after the first loss.

Zero-Sum Game

Does winning a shutout build momentum, or does it instill cockiness that leads to a future loss? And does losing one motivate a team to bounce back the next week?

Shutout victors are 27-21 the following week: not bad, but not great when you realize that these are very good teams. The losers, meanwhile, finished 20-21 (counting this year's Redskins), an indication that at least some of these lousy teams pulled themselves together. (The totals don't add up because of bye weeks and end-of-season or playoff games. Thursday's Broncos-Cowboys game is not included).

Last season, after the Bucs crushed the Falcons 27-0, Michael Vick and company regrouped to beat the Raiders 35-10.That win was one of four two-TD wins that came on the heels of a shutout loss in the last five seasons, signs that an angry team lashed out after an embarrassing defeat. As for overconfidence, the 2000 Niners, 2001 Browns, 2002 Packers, and 2004 Jaguars all followed shutouts with two-TD losses in the regular season.

In the postseason, well, beware the scoreless victory. Three teams have engineered playoff shutouts, only to lose in the next round, and none of the losses were pretty. The 2000 Raiders cruised past the Dolphins 27-0, only to run into a brick wall against the Ravens, losing 16-3. Those same Ravens would take a Giants team that crushed the Vikings 41-0 in the NFC title game and beat them 34-7 in the Super Bowl. And in 2002, the Jets defeated the Colts 41-0 but then lost to the Raiders 30-10.


Late in the 2003 season, the playoff-bound Cowboys traveled to Washington to face a rapidly fading Redskins team. The Redskins, quarterbacked by Tim Hasselbeck, managed 161 yards of offense and six turnovers. The Cowboys won 27-0, handing the Redskins their first shutout loss at home in a decade.

"That was just embarrassing," Fred Smoot said after the game. "I'm embarrassed for DC. I'm embarrassed for anyone who's a Redskins fan." When reminded that some fans threw snowballs onto the field late in the game, Smoot replied: "They should have thrown a whole glacier. We stunk."

A shutout loss can be an early wakeup call, like it was for the 2003 Patriots, or a sign that the end was nigh, as it was for Steve Spurrier's Redskins. A win can be a sign of dominance, as it was so often for the 2000 Ravens, or simply a measure of the opponent's futility, as it was for the 2000 Jaguars.

And sometimes, just as a cigar is a mere cigar, a shutout can be a game in which one team simply failed to score.

So while Braylon Edwards called for a new era in Cleveland, the Broncos' attitude toward their lopsided Sunday win was more appropriate. They played hard. They relished the win. Then, they prepared for a tough two-game road trip. "We don't have much time to celebrate," Champ Bailey said as his team turned its sights toward a showdown with the Cowboys. For a team with its eyes on the Super Bowl, a November shutout is just another win.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 25 Nov 2005

9 comments, Last at 27 Nov 2005, 12:44pm by Ryan Mc


by TomC (not verified) :: Fri, 11/25/2005 - 1:23pm

Thanks Mike, that was a very enjoyable accompaniment to T'giving leftovers. But with that title, I was expecting lots of sly references to virtual quanta, the Planck mass, and the cosmological constant.

by charles (not verified) :: Fri, 11/25/2005 - 1:48pm

excellent article.

by James, London (not verified) :: Fri, 11/25/2005 - 1:49pm

A nice TDZ. I get TDZ in the UK at about 4pm on a Friday afternoon. It's a great way to start the weekend.

by calig23 (not verified) :: Fri, 11/25/2005 - 2:48pm

You had to mention that stupid 2003 game between the Steelers and Jets, didn't you? The same game, where, despite trailing only 6-0, the Steelers threw the ball 38 times in a blizzard, while running only 24 times.

Stupid Mike Mularkey....

by Rick "32_Footsteps" Healey (not verified) :: Fri, 11/25/2005 - 3:52pm

Nice piece.

I'm just curious - do the numbers from the last five seasons of shutout participants in the next week fall in line similarly in the past? I mean, if it turns out that the team shut out won around 50% of their games the next week for the past 25 years, that's an interesting historical trend. Of course, if they haven't, it could lead to interesting speculation on why things have changed.

by Bright Blue Shorts (not verified) :: Fri, 11/25/2005 - 6:38pm

While I was reading that I could only think of TMQ's comments about coaches coaching to avoid embarassment rather than win games.

When the Redskins were shutout (36-0) by the Giants earlier this season; it was only the 2nd time Joe Gibbs had been shutout in his career; the first time in the regular season. IIRC the 'skins had a number of 4th quarter drives in Giants territory and could almost certainly have taken a FG and avoided the shutout. Since that day they've beaten the Eagles and lost to the Bucs and Raiders by 1 and 3-pts respectively. I'm not sure what that proves.

As for Gibbs' first shutout, it was the Giants 17-0 victory in the '86 playoffs. Unlike for recent teams, it didn't harm their chances as they went on to beat the Broncos in the Super Bowl 39-20. The preceding 2-years saw shutouts in the NFC Conference Championship by the 49ers and Bears as they progress on to Super Bowl victory.

BBS :o)

by Travis (not verified) :: Fri, 11/25/2005 - 9:35pm

Re #6:

The Redskins only had one drive inside the Giants' 40 in that game. However, to further your point, Gibbs chose to go for it on 4th and goal from the Giants' 5 rather than kick the gimme FG. Also, the Redskins took a knee on their own 40 with 22 seconds to go.

Compare that to Brian Billick's behavior in the Ravens-Colts game, in which Ravens, down 24-0, used timeouts after repeated Colt kneeldowns.

by Rollo (not verified) :: Sat, 11/26/2005 - 2:26pm

Small correction - it was the 2003 Jaguars who blanked the Texans 27-0 en route to a 5-11 finish. The team finished 9-7 in its 2004-2005 campaign.

by Ryan Mc (not verified) :: Sun, 11/27/2005 - 12:44pm

Strangest shutout I've ever seen: week 16 of the 1997 season the Dolphins play the Colts. Dolphins are 9-5 and in the hunt for the division, Colts are 2-12. The Colts won 41-0. Weird.

The next week the Dolphins played the Pats for the division, and I wondered who would be in the worse frame of mind. The Dolphins were coming off that inexplicable defeat to a lousy team, and the Pats were coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Steelers after they had blown an 8 point lead with 2 minutes to play with a late interception (thanks Bledsoe!), allowing a 4th down conversion on 4th and 10, the TD and then the 2 point conversion, and then allowing a big play on 3rd and 15 in OT.

The Pats won the game 14-12 to win the division, and I never really got a clear read on which team was in the more sorry mental state from the previous weekend's games. Perhaps they'd both been professional enough to put it behind them?