During the 2015 season, the average over/under for an NFL game was roughly 45 points. It went as high as 46 points during the 2014 season. When you see an over/under (the number of points that Vegas predicts will be scored in a game), the average seems to be about 45. Anything over 50 seems like a high scoring game, and anything below 40 seems like a low scoring game. You get to the point where it’s about a 35-point over/under, and that’s basically saying that this game is going to be a defensive slugfest.
In fact, there hasn’t been an over/under below 35 since 2012, when the Pittsburgh Steelers played the Cleveland Browns and the over/under was 33.5 points. This is the only over/under to be under 35 points in the last five years, just to give you an idea of how rare it is for Vegas to actually set that number so low. Oddly enough, of the four games since 2011 to have an over/under less than 35 points, all of them involved the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s right- not even the Ryan Lindley/Mark Sanchez duel of 2012 between the Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets had an over/under below 35, and that game may have legitimately set football back 50 years.
Sometimes, both offenses are incompetent. Sometimes, you get a game where nobody has any confidence in their offense going in, and you see an over/under that is 30 points or less. This has only happened once since 1994, when the Buffalo Bills played the Miami Dolphins on October 17, 2004. To give you an idea of why the over/under was so low, the Dolphins started off 0-5 on the season, hadn’t scored more than 13 points all year at the time, hadn’t put up more than 300 yards of offense at the time, and the average total points in their first 5 games was just 25.8 points. The post-Marino years were rough.
You get the picture. Games where an over/under is 30 points or less are extremely rare. It’s when people expect there to be as much scoring and as much offense as the infamous Springfield soccer game in The Simpsons. Since over/under was calculated, this has only happened 7 times in NFL history. Six of the seven times, including the Dolphins/Bills game in 2004, the over won. That’s not entirely surprising; if a game finishes 17-14, the over wins.
This is the story about the one time that the spread was ridiculously low, and somehow, the under won. This is the story of the Saints/Eagles game from 1991, where the under somehow won with ease even though the over/under was 30 points.
Part I: The Other Game (1979)
Let’s start with the obvious- why was the spread so low? Prior to that point in NFL history, there had only been one game with an over/under of 30 points or less, and that came during a Saturday night primetime game between the Detroit Lions and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in week 1 of the 1979 season. While the Buccaneers won that game 31-16 (they scored more points than the over/under combined for both teams), it’s not like Vegas pulled this low number out of thin air. The last time those teams met in Tampa Bay in 1978 (remember that the Bucs and Lions shared the same division in the NFC Central for the longest time), the score was only 15-7, and the Buccaneers had just 109 yards of total offense, somehow turning the ball over 6 times and having -31 passing yards. Tampa Bay’s offense was the worst in the NFL that season; they were held to 7 points or less 6 times that season, and had the fewest yards in the league.
Their defense, though, was pretty good. Led by Hall of Fame player Lee Roy Selmon (arguably the greatest first draft pick by a franchise in NFL history, though Tony Boselli is up there), the Bucs finished 7th in the NFL in points allowed, and 4th in the NFL in yards allowed. In that game against the Lions the last time those teams met in Tampa, they held the Lions to just 47 passing yards. Only twice in the entire 16-game season did a team pick up 20 or more first downs in a game against the Bucs, and only three times did a team score 20 or more points on the Bucs. So when you combine a great defense with an inept offense going into the season, you get an over/under that low. Remember that this was week 1 of the 1979 season, so all people had to base their judgment on was 1978; obviously, the 1979 season was fantastic for the Bucs, as they would briefly turn the corner and make it to, and host, the NFC Championship.
What about the Lions, though? If the other team has a good offense, then even if the other team is terrible, the over/under won’t be so low. Well… they didn’t have a quarterback. Gary Danielson started the final 11 games for the Lions in 1978, and did quite well, throwing 18 touchdown passes and even having a game against the Minnesota Vikings where he threw for 5 touchdown passes in a 45-14 victory. He wasn’t great, but as starting quarterbacks go, he was serviceable, right around the middle of the pack (maybe even a top 10 quarterback). But in 1979, he wanted more money. Danielson, despite being the starting quarterback, was only making $60,000, and that number was somehow actually lower than what Danielson was actually making. Danielson lashed out against the Lions, which seems to be the theme of /r/nfl this week, and he didn’t play in 1979 due to an injury.
That meant that starting in week 1 would be Jeff Komlo, their ninth round pick from the 1979 NFL Draft. That’s right- the Lions were going into week 1 starting a ninth round rookie. He was the first ever non-#1 pick to ever start opening day as a rookie. Combine those 2 teams, with the Bucs having an inept offense and the Lions literally not having a quarterback, and you get an over/under that’s only 30 points.
The over won, as the Bucs won 31-16, but to be honest, I’m not sure how 47 points were scored in this game. Doug Williams, the starting quarterback for the Bucs, went 4-for-16 that day, and Komlo had a passer rating of 39.6 (pretty much the equivalent of what you would get if you threw the ball into the ground every single play), going 5-for-21. But prior to the game mentioned in this post (Saints/Eagles in 1991), this was the only time in NFL history that an over/under was 30 points or less.
Part II: Background (1991)
We know now why the last game had an over/under so low. So what about this one? What compelled Vegas to set the over/under historically low at 30 points? This might sound like a foreign concept, but for one, the Saints actually had a really good defense. It was a big reason why they were 5-0- the Dome Patrol linebacker combination of Sam Mills, Pat Swilling, and Rickey Jackson might be the most underrated and forgotten in NFL history. That year, Mills had 102 tackles, Swilling had 17 sacks, and Jackson had 11.5 sacks, and combined, the 3 linebackers forced 11 fumbles. In the 4 games prior to this one against the Eagles, the total number of points scored on average was 29.25 points. That’s pretty much right in line with what the over/under of this game was at 30 points.
As for the Eagles, they had a great defense. By the end of the 1991 season, the Saints and Eagles would have, in terms of yards allowed, the two best defenses in the NFL. In the 6 games that the Eagles played prior to this one against the Saints, the total number of points scored was just 28.3 points, and the last 2 games finished with an average of 25 points scored (a 23-0 loss to Washington and a 14-13 loss to Tampa Bay). As great as Philadelphia’s defense was, though, their offense was anemic at times. They had scored just 13 points in the 2 weeks before the Saints game, and on Monday Night Football against Washington, they had 3 turnovers, 89 total yards, and 4 first downs. They averaged literally 1 first down a quarter.
Based on the numbers from the Saints and Eagles that season, it seemed pretty obvious why Vegas would think this game would be really low scoring, and why it was worthy of just the second ever over/under at 30 points or less. What makes things a bit puzzling, though, is when you look at the series history between these two teams. The last time the Saints and Eagles played was in 1989, and the Saints won 30-20, with 50 total points scored. The time before that, the Eagles won 27-17 (44 points scored), and the time before that, the Saints won 23-21 (44 points scored). In fact, the last 9 games between the Eagles and the Saints went over 30 points. The last time the Saints/Eagles game finished with less than 30 points scored was in 1974, when the Saints won 14-10. For some perspective on how long ago that was, that game was held at Tulane Stadium, and the Saints and Eagles had never met at Veterans Stadium.
If you’re going off of historical results, this seems like the over should win. If you’re going off of what these teams were doing on the field, it seems like a close win for the under (although everything seems pretty close when an over/under is 30 points). Remember- every other time in NFL history that this has happened, the over won. This was the one time that the under won, even with the over/under this ridiculously low. So how did the game turn out?
Part III: The Game
If you want some good, old-fashioned NFL Primetime highlights of the game, here you go. I was able to find the Primetime from week 7 of 1991, which shows about a minute and a half of highlights from this game. It’s not the cheap highlights they show now on SportsCenter where it’s “highlights” from the game and it’s only one play that’s shown. This is pretty legit.
As for the game, it was ugly. The Saints had just 10 first downs, while the Eagles had 11. The Saints had 64 rushing yards on 30 carries (2.1 yards per carry), while the Eagles had just 53 rushing yards on 17 carries (3.1 yards per carry). The Eagles, despite averaging 3.1 yards per carry, averaged a full yard more than the Saints on each rushing attempt. That should give you a pretty good idea of what game we had on this October day in 1991.
The Eagles could not take care of the ball. They turned the ball over 6 times, which sounds bad enough. But it gets even worse when you consider the fact that they fumbled the ball 6 times, and only lost 1 of those fumbles. Hypothetically, if they had lost every single fumble, they would’ve turned the ball over 11 times. They gave the Saints 11 opportunities to claim the ball on offense. Between times that the Eagles put the ball on the ground and threw an interception, they had the same number of possible turnovers (11) as they did first downs.
Bobby Hebert started the game for the Saints, and was absolutely abysmal, going 2-for-8 for 29 yards with 2 interceptions and 2 sacks. That comes out to a passer rating of 2.6. For some perspective on how bad that rating is, if I played in an NFL game and went 1-for-12 with 0 touchdowns, 0 passing yards, and 1 interception, I would have a better passer rating (4.9) than Hebert had. Steve Walsh, the guy that the Cowboys wasted a first round pick on in the 1989 Supplemental Draft despite literally spending a first round pick a few months prior on Troy Aikman, came into the game in relief, and actually looked adequate, going 8-for-17 with 96 yards and a touchdown. He was, by far, the best quarterback in the game. However, the Saints had less than 100 net passing yards for the entire game.
None of the two quarterbacks that played for the Eagles put up a passer rating better than 35. They would’ve had a better passer rating just throwing the ball into the dirt every single play. Brad Goebel went 12-for-22 with 0 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, and Pat Ryan went 6-for-12 with an interception. The Eagles finished the game with a mere 204 yards of total offense, which was somehow still better than the Saints, who finished with 162 yards of total offense. Outside of Keith Jackson on the Eagles, who had 8 receptions for 81 yards, I’m hesitant to say that anyone on the offensive side of the ball had a good game.
In total, there were 8 turnovers, with the Eagles turning it over 6 times and the Saints turning it over twice. Dalton Hilliard scored the only touchdown of the game, which came on a 14-yard pass from Steve Walsh in the third quarter, and by halftime, only 9 points had been scored. The game ended 13-6, and 19 total points were scored. That means that the under, despite being historically low, not only won, but handily won.
Before you bring up the argument that this game was just a product of the time and it’s impossible to compare, I present this- during week 7, there were 10 games played, not counting the Saints/Eagles game. Every single one of those games finished with more than 30 points scored. The lowest scoring game, not counting Saints/Eagles, was a 34-7 game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Phoenix Cardinals (41 total points scored). Excluding the Saints/Eagles game, the average number of points scored during week 7 was 51.1 points. Eight teams (Buffalo with 42, Dallas with 35, Kansas City with 42, Minnesota with 34, LA Rams with 30, Atlanta with 39, San Francisco with 34, Washington with 42) would have, at the very least, tied the over/under from the Saints/Eagles game. And, of the 20 teams not named the Saints or the Eagles to play that week, only three of them (Indianapolis with 6, Miami with 7, Phoenix with 7) scored less than 17 points, and only four of them (the three aforementioned teams and Cleveland with 17) scored less than 20 points. So this game was not a product of the times. These defenses were just that good, and these offenses were just that bad.
Part IV: Conclusion
Are we ever going to see another game with an over/under so low? Probably not. Again, it’s only happened once since 1994, and it hasn’t happened in nearly a decade and a half. And we haven’t seen an over/under less than 35 since the 2012 season. But the fact that, despite an over/under of 30, that the under somehow won, seems remarkable. Nowadays, it seems like anything under 40 points is really low scoring, because in today’s day and age, even a bad offense will get some scoring opportunities. All it takes in today’s league is for one offense to be merely average for there to be more than 30 points scored in a game.
For the most part, that Saints/Eagles game from 1991 seems like a forgotten game. The Eagles missed the playoffs that year, and we got distracted from the fact that the Saints blew a 10-0 lead to the Falcons in the Wild Card Round. It’s not like these specific teams are remembered in NFL history. It seemed like a forgotten game even at the time in week 7, considering the fact that 3 games that week finished with a 23-20 score line, the Raiders won in overtime against the Seahawks, and the Giants won a thriller against the Steelers on Monday Night Football, with Matt Bahr kicking a game-winning field goal with just 4 seconds left.
But this game actually does have a place in NFL history. In NFL history, the Saints/Eagles game was the game that broke the over/under.
Submitted July 14, 2017 at 07:23AM by JaguarGator9
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