The road shutout game: A victim of NFL parity?

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

After the Seattle Seahawks' 23-0 victory over the New York Giants on December 15, I was interested in how often NFL teams travel on the road and shutout their opponent. During the game, Kevin Burkhardt and John Lynch informed viewers that the last time the Giants had been shutout at home was September 4, 1995, a 35-0 opening day loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Viewers were also informed that the last time the Seattle Seahawks shutout a team on the road was December 5, 2005 when they traveled to Philadelphia and shutout the Eagles 42-0.

Exploring various sports news websites led me to comments suggesting that the NFL has a shutout approximately once every thirty games, on average, or about every other week. However, that takes all shutouts into account, and it certainly seems like it would be much easier to shut out a team at home than on the road.

So the question about the elusive road shutout remained and since Google didn't help, I grabbed a pen and paper and went over to Pro Football Reference for a little research. What I learned was pretty interesting.

Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, there have been 9,882 NFL games played. In those games, a home team has been shutout 167 times during the regular season and two times during the playoffs. This means that a home team is shutout once every 59 NFL regular season games, or about once every 3.7 weeks of regular season play. That is about four times per season and seemed high, so I decided to dig a little deeper.

In the eleven years following the NFL merger (1970-1980), there were an amazing 69 times that a home team was shutout, including 12 times in 1977 alone. During this period, a home team was shutout about once every 31 games (~2 weeks) of regular season play. Since this seemed excessive enough to skew the overall numbers, I decided to exclude it.

In the 7,768 NFL regular season games that have been played since the 1981 season, a home team has been shutout 98 times. This brings the rate to about once every 79 games (~5 weeks). This is a pretty significant increase, so I wondered what would happen if I cut out everything before the 2002 season when we went to our current season format of 32 NFL teams playing a 16-game schedule. This would eliminate changes in games per year, strike years, and the four increases of NFL teams from 26 in 1970 to the current 32 teams in 2002.

Using only the 3,040 regular season games that have been played from Week 1 of the 2002 season through Week 15 of the 2013 season, there have only been 31 times that a home team has been shutout, or a rate of once every 98 games (~6 weeks). With 32 games left to play in the 2013 regular season, it has happened once with the Seahawks traveling to East Rutherford yesterday and shutting out the Giants 23-0. Last year there was also only one (also in East Rutherford) when the San Francisco 49ers shutout the New York Jets 34-0 in Week 4. In 2011, the only home team to get shutout was the Oakland Raiders (28-0 versus the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 7). The highest number came in 2006 when there were an amazing seven times that home teams were shutout, but the days of teams going on the road and shutting out their opponents seem to be getting increasingly rare and makes me wonder what might be causing this.

Something that has been discussed with increasing frequency in recent years is parity in the NFL, or the equalization of the quality of NFL teams. Measures that have been implemented to increase NFL parity include "Plan B" free agency in 1989, modern free agency in 1993 (replacing "Plan B"), and the salary cap in 1994. NFL parity can be seen in a number of ways, like the Miami Dolphins who went 1-15 in 2007 and 11-5 in 2008. The current season is a perfect example with the three lowest records in the NFL belonging to teams that each won a division championship in 2012 (Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, and Atlanta Falcons). And last year's worst team, the Kansas City Chiefs (2-14), currently boasts an amazing AFC-best 10-3 record.

There is little doubt that parity in the NFL is a real thing, and perhaps the increasing rarity of the road game shutout is another indicator of that. When a team is able to achieve this, it is a pretty special thing and is something that should make the organization and its fans very proud.

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