It wasn’t so long ago that the star of Super Bowl Sunday was a talking frog. Or a dancing monkey. Or Cindy Crawford enjoying a refreshing cola.
For a stretch of time that lasted more than a decade, the only suspense after kickoff of the Super Bowl came from anticipating the next clever commercial. More often than not, the actual game was over before it even started.
From 1984-97, in particular, the Super Bowl morphed into a near-annual blowout—anything but a battle between the NFL’s two best teams. During that period of time, the average margin of victory was an obscene 21.4 points and nine of the 14 games were decided by more than two touchdowns.
But a funny thing has happened this millennium. The focus has shifted back to football thanks to a series of tight contests, each more compelling than the next. Since 2000, only two Super Bowls have been decided by more than 14 points, while eight games have ended with a one-score differential. Three others—Super Bowl XL (Steelers-Seahawks), XLI (Colts-Bears) and XLIV (Saints-Colts)—also featured one-score margins at some point in the fourth quarter.
Clearly, it seems, something has changed in a drastic way to make the NFL’s title game far more competitive. Except that’s not actually the case.
A common refrain is that the tighter Super Bowl scores are a byproduct of the NFL’s salary cap. The timing makes sense—the cap came into place in 1994, which was the tail end of the blowout era. And the cap’s reason for existence is tied largely to ensuring competitive balance, so a closer Super Bowl would appear to be the perfect manifestation of that goal.
But that’s not consistent with the way the NFL has changed since ’94. Instead, according to Aaron Schatz, who runs Football Outsiders, a popular advanced metrics website, parity has actually declined in the salary cap era. “In general, the best teams have been coming in stronger each year, while the worst teams have been worse and worse, using our advanced stats,” Schatz says.
So how, then, do we explain the Super Bowl shift? It’s actually the product of two factors. First and foremost, time has allowed us to see the 1984-97 period as a statistical outlier. It’s abnormal for any team to beat another by 20-plus points in any game, let alone when two top teams spar in the Super Bowl. The string of blowouts, not the recent stretch of close games, is the real story, because Super Bowls prior to 1984 also tended to be more competitive. What happened in the ’80s and ’90s was unnatural.
The blowouts weren’t all the product of random chance, though. “We all know the NFC was much better than the AFC throughout the ’80s,” Schatz says. Indeed, the dominant teams of that era were the 49ers, Giants and Redskins, with the Cowboys joining the mix in the ’90s. Facing the AFC champion (often the Broncos or Bills) often turned out to be a breeze compared to surviving the NFC gauntlet. But that still doesn’t mean the outcomes should have been so one-sided.
This year, though, appears headed in the other direction. According to Schatz, this season featured more close games than any in NFL history. Sure, in time we will probably see that as nothing more than a statistical outlier, too. But if you’re into omens, it bodes well for Feb. 3.
Check out Athlon Sports' special Super Bowl section for more coverage on the Ravens vs. 49ers and the history of the big game.