Running up the score
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In North American sports, "running up the score" occurs when a team continues to play in such a way as to score additional points after the outcome of the game is no longer in question and the team is assured of winning. In the United States, and Canada, it is considered poor sportsmanship to "run up the score" in most circumstances. (Exceptions are listed below.) Sporting alternatives include pulling out most of the team's first string players, or calling plays designed to run out the clock (e.g., in American football, kneeling or running the ball up the middle). The term and the concept is not common elsewhere in the world. Mercy rules are used in many amateur sports, which ends the game when the score reaches a certain point.
- 1 Consequences
- 2 Justifications
- 3 Examples in college football
- 4 In other sports
- 5 In popular culture
- 6 References
The most common negative consequences of running up the score are injuries to a game's starting players, lack of experience for the non-starting players on the team (in those cases where starters are left in a game well after the outcome is certain), and opposing teams remembering a shellacking and plotting revenge in a future meeting.
Running up the score is considered poor sportsmanship by many fans, players, and coaches, albeit with differences in opinion on how big an insult it is. Allegations of poor sportsmanship are often brought up soon after a team scores multiple times near the end of a one-sided match. However, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden contended that it was not his job to call plays inconsistent with his regular offense. He felt that the prevention of further scoring was the responsibility of the opposing team's defense.
Benefits in the BCS and other polls
Certain coaches are notorious for running up the score in order to impress coaches and sportswriters who vote in the Coaches Poll or AP Poll.
It is a common allegation that some poll voters simply look at box scores before punching in their votes. These votes have a huge impact on who goes to BCS games, including the national championship. Only by watching the game or game tape (or by careful box-score scrutiny) can a coach determine if a 49–21 score was because of a fairly one-sided game, or because the winning team tried to make the score look more impressive when the game's outcome was no longer in doubt.
The BCS computers originally included margin of victory as a component, but the BCS removed those elements after noticing large increases in teams running up the score.
Some fans of teams whose coaches frequently run up the score may also note that running up the score has its advantages. Though many coaches who run up the score simply do it with their first-string players, a coach who uses his third- and fourth-string players can give them vital in-game experience if he allows them to do more than just kneel on the football or run the ball up the middle. When they are not allowed to make passing and running plays that the first- and second-stringers get to make, their skills may not develop as quickly.
Alternatively, in college sports where many players from successful teams have hopes of becoming professionals, running up the score gives players the chance to improve their statistics and to show off skills that the conventional offense would not allow. While it may be seen as poor sportsmanship as there is no guarantee that any player will be picked for the professional leagues, every opportunity to bolster stats and impress scouts can be seen as improving the professional prospects of the players.
The argument most frequently used in favor of running up the score is the belief that it is not the coach's or winning team's fault if a weak team is unable to stop a high-powered offensive juggernaut. Additionally, some coaches advocate running up the score to make another point, such as showing disapproval of comments made by opposing players, coaches, etc., in the media.
It's also argued that it can be used as a preventative measure to prevent a huge comeback. In 2006, Penn State lost to Notre Dame 41–17. Notre Dame is said to have run up the score a little, however, Penn State is known for late comebacks. Supporters of preventatively running up the score will often point to games such as the 2006 Insight Bowl where Minnesota blew a 38–7 lead in the third quarter to eventually lose 44–41 to Texas Tech.
Running up the score in professional leagues generally generates significantly less controversy and indeed the term is far less common. While there are numerous reasons to run out the clock, there is no reason not to score more points if the situation allows. As all teams are professionals even perceived underdogs have the potential to score points quickly if given the chance. Even teams with a dominant lead have a strong interest in maintaining possession to run down the clock which often puts them in the position to score more points.
At all levels of play it is generally accepted that players or teams close to breaking significant records can run up the score without it being seen as overtly disrespectful. In fact many offensive records almost require running up the score to be in contention as a result of records set in eras where leagues were less balanced, seasons were a different length or rules were substantially different.
In addition, many leagues use tiebreakers in the event that two or more teams are tied in the standings, and one common tiebreaker when multiple teams are involved (such as when three teams are tied, with no team having beaten both of the others) is "point differential" (calculated as the difference between the number of points a team scores vs. the number of points a team allows against common opponents); "running up a score" can help their chances of winning positions, as well as stopping the other team from scoring as well (though some leagues counter this by placing a cap on the number of points which can be counted in a point differential, as an example no more than 14, so even if the score is 49–0 only 14 points will count in the tiebreaker).
Examples in college football
With Alltel Stadium (now Everbank Field) still under construction in 1995, Florida visited Georgia in Athens, Georgia at Sanford Stadium for the first time in 63 years. With a 38–17 lead going into the fourth quarter over the beleaguered Bulldogs, Florida head coach Steve Spurrier decided to run up the score to "hang half a hundred" on the scoreboard to humiliate their opponents on their home field, something that had never been done before. His team succeeded with a final score of 52–17. That record still stands today as the most points ever scored by an opposing team at Sanford Stadium.
On October 7, 1916, Georgia Tech defeated the Cumberland College Bulldogs 222–0. Cumberland had previously disbanded their football team, but quickly formed a scrub team when faced with fines if they refused to play. Georgia Tech scored 63 points in the first quarter and 63 points in the second quarter, then 54 points in the third quarter and 42 points in the fourth. Neither team gained a first down during the game, because Georgia Tech's defense prevented Cumberland from advancing for a first down and Georgia Tech scored on every series of downs. Georgia Tech won under the coaching of John Heisman, who wanted revenge after an embarrassing 22–0 loss earlier that year to a Cumberland baseball team that he suspected of having used professional players posing as students.
On November 23, 1968, the University of Houston defeated the University of Tulsa 100–6. Though they had a 24–0 advantage at half, the Cougars scored 11 touchdowns in the second half for an astounding 94-point blowout. They came close again in 1989, routing a Southern Methodist team fresh off the so-called death penalty by a score of 95–21.
Houston coach John Jenkins was known for leaving his starters in to pad their stats during blowout games but against SMU he did not. In 1990, University of Houston defeated Eastern Washington University 84–21 to help QB David Klingler set an NCAA record 54 touchdown passes in 11 games that season. The next year, 1991, they would blow out Louisiana Tech University 73–3 in the opening game of the season.
On November 30, 1985, the University of Miami Hurricanes were playing the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in Gerry Faust's final game as Notre Dame head coach. The Hurricanes, led by Jimmy Johnson, were trying to impress pollsters since they were ranked fourth in the polls prior to the game. The Hurricanes called a fake punt on fourth-and-11 in the fourth quarter with a 44–7 lead, scored a touchdown off a blocked punt with less than six minutes left, and went on to win 58–7. Miami was rewarded in the AP poll as it passed idle Iowa to reach No. 3 and set up a possible national championship with a victory over Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl. Receiving criticism after the game, Johnson replied, "Nobody apologized to me when Oklahoma did it," a reference to a 1980 rout by the score of 63–14 when Johnson was head coach at Oklahoma State University. Miami would go on to lose to Tennessee, 35–7, in the 1986 Sugar Bowl.
Notre Dame crushed Georgia Tech 69–14 in 1977. The Fighting Irish led 21–7 at halftime but scored 21 points in the third quarter and 27 in the fourth. Only a missed extra point after ND's eighth touchdown kept the Irish from scoring 70 points for the first time since 1932 and only the second time in Notre Dame Stadium history. After ND took a 62–7 lead, Georgia Tech scored its only second half points on a kickoff return for a touchdown by Eddie Lee Ivery; the Irish would not surrender another kickoff return for a touchdown until 21 years later, against Kevin Faulk and LSU in 1998. The blowout was payback for a 23–14 upset victory by Georgia Tech over Notre Dame in 1976, after which Yellow Jacket players were quoted as deriding the Fighting Irish as fat and slow. There also was bad blood between ND coach Dan Devine and GT coach Pepper Rodgers, dating back to the days when they coached arch-rivals Missouri and Kansas, respectively; Devine's Tigers had mauled Rodgers's Jayhawks 69–21 in the 1969 season finale. The 1977 humiliation of Georgia Tech did not impact Notre Dame's poll standing; they remained No. 5 in the AP poll—but the Fighting Irish won the rest of their games to finish 11–1 and win the 1977 national championship.
Notre Dame annihilated Boston College 54–7 in a 1992 game where Fighting Irish coach Lou Holtz called a fake punt on the first series of the third quarter, with his team already possessing an enormous (albeit not technically insurmountable) 37–0 lead. A year later, Boston College stunned then-No. 1 Notre Dame 41–39 in the final regular season game of the year, knocking the Fighting Irish to No. 4 in the AP poll and paving the way for Florida State to be voted national champions.
While playing at longtime rival Stanford in 2003, Notre Dame head coach Tyrone Willingham allowed his punter to call a fake punt in response to a punt block read while the Fighting Irish led 57–7 late in the fourth quarter.  Willingham was formerly head coach at Stanford.
In 1968, the Ohio State Buckeyes, en route to a national championship, defeated their bitter rival, the Michigan Wolverines, 50–14. Late in the game, Ohio State held a commanding 44–14 advantage and scored one final touchdown. Rather than taking the more common extra point kick, Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes opted for a two-point conversion, which was unsuccessful. When asked later why he went for two points, Hayes said, "Because I couldn't go for three!", though players have commented that there was some sort of confusion on the extra point kick, and Hayes was just covering for his players.
On November 8, 2003, the Oklahoma Sooners showed little mercy against Texas A&M Aggies, cruising to a 49–0 halftime lead. Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops denied running up the score (which did little to silence criticism) as his second string players came out in the 3rd quarter and put up 28 more points to finish with a final score of 77–0 and 639 yards of total offense. This was the worst loss in Texas A&M football history. In Stoops' defense, the coaches agreed to a running clock during most of the second half and the entire 4th quarter. Also, at one point in the fourth quarter, Oklahoma had first and goal inside the A&M five-yard-line with a chance to score over 80 points, but Stoops called four consecutive runs up the middle to prevent another score.
In their 2012 season opener, the Oklahoma State Cowboys defeated Savannah State Tigers 84–0. In defense of the lop-sided result, interim defense coordinator Glenn Spencer claimed the shutout was a tribute to the ill Bill Young—team's full-time defensive coordinator—who recently underwent an undisclosed medical procedure. It ended up as the most lopsided victory for OSU since a 117-0 rout of Southwestern Oklahoma in 1916 and Savannah State's worst loss since a 98-0 defeat against Bethune-Cookman in 1953, a season when the Tigers were outscored 444–6.
Although longtime Penn State head coach Joe Paterno was regarded by some as one who did everything he could to avoid running up the score, such as in a 63-10 win over Illinois in 2005 where Penn State held a 56–3 halftime lead, Pitt partisan journalist Beano Cook claimed he made an exception in 1985 against hated rival Pitt. The game was well in hand with the score 31–0 when the assistants called the first string team off the field. Paterno supposedly immediately ordered them back in, saying, "I want to bury Pitt." Paterno's 1991 Penn State team is often accused of running it up on Cincinnati 81–0, but this was refuted by the Bearcat's coach Tim Murphy, who said "I think Joe's a class guy and I don't believe he'd do that in a hundred years," Murphy said. "We made too many mistakes even for a first game of the season and that's my fault. I'm embarrassed, not Joe Paterno."
In the early 2000s, Stanford was considered the bottom-dweller of the Pac-10, whereas in-state rival USC was named the "Team of the Decade" by both CBSSports.com and Football.com, as well as the "Program of the Decade" by SI.com. However, after the arrival of head coach Jim Harbaugh to The Farm in 2007 and Stanford's record-breaking upset of the Trojans that fall, the Stanford-USC rivalry began to pick up in intensity and importance. During their 2009 meeting, Stanford was crushing USC in the Coliseum, leading 48–21 midway through the fourth quarter. After a touchdown run by future Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart, Harbaugh kept the Cardinal offense on the field to attempt a two-point conversion. When asked what was going on, Harbaugh said, "I want to put fifty on these motherfuckers." The two-point conversion was unsuccessful, but Stanford would later score in the final minutes of the game, and ultimately won 55–21 after scoring 27 points in the fourth quarter. It was the worst home loss in USC history at the time, and is USC's largest margin of defeat in the Stanford-USC rivalry.
After the game, USC head coach Pete Carroll approached Harbaugh and, visibly angry, asked "What's your deal? You alright?" To which Harbaugh retorted "I'm fine. What's your deal?" This moment (in addition to the aforementioned Stanford upset of #1 USC in 2007) is seen by many as the turning point of the Stanford Cardinal football program, which since 2010 has been one of the winningest programs in college football.
In the same 2003 season that Oklahoma defeated Texas A&M 77–0 (see above), A&M themselves ran up the score in a 73–10 home romp against Baylor University. A&M naturally entered the rematch a year later as huge favorites, and the game was to be played the week prior to the major rematch game against Oklahoma. Perhaps too busy awaiting their moment of revenge against the Sooners the week to come, Texas A&M succumbed to the Baylor team they had humiliated the year before. As the Bears only managed three wins that entire 2004 season, the revenge-minded Baylor team's 35–34 overtime victory was arguably the biggest upset of the year. (Texas A&M did end up losing to Oklahoma again the following week, as well, although this time only by a score of 42–35.)
Washington and Oregon
The largest margin of victory turnaround in Division I-A football in successive years belongs to the University of Washington and the University of Oregon and showcased two prime examples of running up the score. In 1973, Oregon ran up the score at home, burying Washington 58–0. A year later, Washington responded with a 66–0 drubbing of Oregon back home in Seattle. In that game, Washington's starting quarterback Chris Rowland played longer than necessary and suffered a season-ending knee injury. Rowland recalled that Washington head coach Jim Owens "wanted me in and said, 'We're going to beat these guys more than they beat us.' He [Owens] apologized to me because it was a personal thing for him."
In other sports
Australian rules football
There is no negative stigma associated with running up the score in Australian rules football. The only tiebreaker used in most leagues is the ratio of points for versus points against, so this system encourages teams to record large scores and winning margins, and this occurs frequently when there is a disparity between ability. This occurs in all levels of play, particularly in metropolitan and country leagues, where weaker teams can often be beaten by as much as 200 points. Significantly, the sport lacks any obvious means to kill off a match quickly and painlessly, and time-wasting is both unpopular with fans and discouraged by the laws of the game.
In baseball, an unwritten gentlemen's agreement between teams is said to discourage a team from sacrifice bunting, stealing bases, or other small ball tactics when leading by a large margin late in a game, even though a losing team can theoretically come back from any deficit to win. Batters do not specifically try to make outs (e.g. by swinging at pitches with no intent to hit them) as this would insult the opposing team, violate the spirit of the game, and hurt their own batting average.
Amateur, high school, and international baseball games often have a mercy rule so that games end sooner when the lead is deemed to be insurmountable (e.g. by 10 runs after 5 innings). However, since the home team always gets one final at-bat if they are trailing, the visiting team can in theory score unlimited runs in the top half of the inning.
In basketball, some coaches of vastly superior teams team will keep in their starters in the latter stages of a grossly one-sided game (e.g., less than ten minutes left in the second half of a college game; or well into the fourth quarter of a high school or NBA game). Players may be told to continue to aggressively apply full-court pressure (in order to steal the ball), block shots, break away for slam dunks, or try three-point baskets and other fan-pleasing shots.
A team that is trailing by an undefined margin sometimes may prolong the game by fouling the opponent on every possession, in an effort to extend its chances of a comeback — although teams that utilize this strategy often do so only when the game is still somewhat competitive. However, this strategy does not always work, particularly if the fouled players or team is able to connect on free throws.
In cases where the score is lopsided much earlier in the game, the most common option is to just "play it out" as if it were a scrimmage, by trying to take the best shot possible and also attempt some sort of defense (without any taboos against fan-pleasing shots and plays). This is usually referred to as "garbage time", and while generally frowned upon for a lack of excitement it is considered to be the best way of ending a thoroughly uncompetitive game with minimal amounts of pride lost by the weaker side.
Running up the score was a key element in the Knicks–Nuggets brawl on December 16, 2006, as New York coach Isiah Thomas accused Denver coach George Karl of implementing it late in the game. Karl defended himself by citing many games where his team had lost large leads late.
Former Oklahoma Sooners basketball coach Billy Tubbs was often accused of running up the score against inferior opponents. On November 29, 1989, Tubbs' team went so far as to score 97 points in the first half of a game against U.S. International. Oklahoma won the game in a 173–101 rout. Asked repeatedly about running up the score against opponents, Tubbs once famously replied, "If they don't like it, they should get better."
Occasionally, teams will run up the score because of crowd encouragement. Crowd encouragement can occur whether or not there is a physical incentive involved. Often, a crowd will start chanting "X more points" near the end of a game, where X is the number of points needed to reach 100. This usually occurs when the team is within 5 points of reaching the 100-point mark. Also, crowd encouragement can happen as the result of a promotion for ticket-holders. In a Bradley home game against Wichita State, coach Jim Les put in some reserve players during the last 1–2 minutes of the game after the score got to 62–50. During the final possession, the crowd started to yell "Shoot shoot shoot" because the season ticket-holders would get a buy-one-get-one-free rib-eye steak dinner at a local restaurant if the score reached 63. One of the Bradley players launched a buzzer-beating 3 because of the crowd encouragement and it went in, making the final score 65–50.
One of the unique rules of curling allows for the losing team to concede a match at any time, thereby preventing blowouts from occurring. In fact, it is sometimes considered unsportsmanlike for a team that is losing badly to not concede. For some major events, a game must play a certain amount of ends to be considered complete. As a protest, some teams that would have conceded earlier in the match may not take the game seriously at that point.
Before teams were allowed to concede matches well before the normal end of the game, blowouts were common.
In ice hockey, complaints are quite rare, for the simple reason that unless there is a gross disparity in skill, teams generally do not score large numbers of goals at will against the opposition. A mercy rule also may come into effect at pre-high-school levels, where such disparities might come into play as a matter of course. Another tactic could be the coach of the leading team telling his team that everybody must touch the puck before a shot is taken.
However, the rules of competition can sometimes work the opposite direction. In women's hockey at the 2006 Winter Olympics, total goals was one of the factors determining "home" ice, and so the two favored teams, the United States and Canada, were encouraged to post the highest scores possible. When the Canadians posted a total score of 26-0 over their first two games against the much weaker Italy and Russia, they were criticized in their home country and abroad. However, as a consequence of the tie-breaking rules, they couldn't let up in case the Americans blew out one of their opponents.
Association football (soccer)
In amateur association football, running up the score is sometimes limited by the presence of a mercy rule. In professional soccer, the concept of "running up the score" is mostly unheard of; many professional association football competitions use goal difference or goal average as a tiebreaker, meaning there is considerable incentive to win by as wide a margin of victory as possible. Furthermore, it is doubtful that a team on the receiving end of a ten-goal defeat would ever accuse their opponents of unsporting behavior or a lack of respect; indeed, in European association football, a strong team choosing to field star players against lesser opposition is generally seen as a mark of respect, rather than of disrespect. In fact, if a European team, leading by several goals late in the game, made an American football-style attempt to show good sportsmanship by easing off, bringing on several lesser-known substitutes and retaining possession in order to kill the clock, this would be seen as deeply unsporting and would probably provoke a hostile reaction quite opposite to the intended effect. Also, teams are limited to three substitutions (though this is increased to six in international friendly matches) per match in most competitions, preventing coaches from making mass substitutions seen in American football, basketball, or baseball.
However, there are many examples of the concept existing in football, particularly international. An example of running up the score in soccer was Australia's 31–0 blowout of the American Samoa in a 2002 FIFA World Cup qualifier. Australia scored at will as a result of passport, travel and selection issues forcing American Samoa to field a team of very young players, while Australia wanted to force a discussion about having to play matches against teams far inferior to their own within the Oceania Football Confederation, breaking their own record they had set a few days earlier by beating Tonga 22 to nil. Eventually, after the 2006 qualifiers, Australia joined the stronger Asian Football Confederation. A number of smaller-sized UEFA countries such as San Marino and Andorra are also known to have a negative reputation in European press, and failing to beat them strongly results in press criticism. For example, the Republic of Ireland team and coach Steve Staunton received much press criticism for merely beating the lowly San Marino team 2–1.
Nevertheless, in recent decades international governing bodies have moved to change tie-breaking rules for international competition with the intent of giving considerations such as "head-to-head" records a priority over goal difference and/or goal average when breaking ties. This has served to reduce the incentive to run up the score in international competition which has on occasion come under scrutiny, especially when suspicions have arisen that a weaker side may have deliberately conceded an excessive number of goals in order to earn favor from the victor. One possible example may have been a 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifier between Bahrain and Indonesia.
Vast talent discrepancies between opponents happen more often in high school sports than in college or professional sports. This is especially prevalent in district competition (where schools of similar size are grouped based on geography) and regional single-elimination tournaments in which all schools (regardless of record) participate. It is even more prevalent in Kentucky high school basketball, in which a single state championship for each sex is conducted; this in turn means that district and regional competitions, and even the state tournaments, will feature games involving schools that differ vastly in enrollment. Often, a state's athletic association will seed a vastly superior team (one that has gone undefeated or has very few losses) against a very weak team in the first round (so as to avoid early-round matchups against high-seeded teams, hoping to leave those matchups for later rounds), and the talent disparity between the two teams quickly becomes obvious.
One notorious example of many such incidents that happen each year throughout the United States was the state-ranked Walkerville, Michigan High School's (enrollment 98) 115–2 victory against Hart, Michigan Lakeshore Academy (enrollment 49) in a Class D district opener during the 2004 Michigan High School Girl's Basketball state tournament.
In light of similar incidents, coaches are often accused of running up the score and taking the opportunity to humiliate and embarrass a weak opponent. At times, large margins of victory occur in games where the winning school's reserves (second-string and junior varsity players) played a good share of the contest and simply were able to score at will against the weaker opposition. However, when the star players are left in to set scoring records, as happened with Epiphanny Prince's 113-point basketball game in 2006, criticism usually follows.
Since 2006, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference has considered any victory margin of 50 points or more in a football game to be unsportsmanlike. If this occurs, the winning team's coach will be suspended for the team's next game. This was in response to one coach, Jack Cochran of New London, whose teams won that way four times during 2005. During the 2005 season, Jack Cochran's New London High School football team, the highest scoring offense in CT, was shut out 16–0 by the Windham High School Whippets. In response to being shut out for the first time in his career, the following week Cochran had his team run up the score 90–0 against a much weaker opponent. The victory provoked a brawl and led to disorderly conduct charges against the losing coach. Coach Cochran defended himself by saying that in one 90–0 blowout, he had tried to get both teams and the timekeeper to run the clock continuously, as is done in Iowa when one team has a 35-point lead. The CIAC considered a similar proposal but rejected as several members felt it would cut into backups' playing time.
During a 2007 Kansas State High School Activities Association playoff game, Smith Center High School set a National Federation of State High School Associations record by scoring 72 points in the first quarter vs. Plainville. Coincidentally, the same two teams played each other only 25 days prior to the playoff contest, with Smith Center winning 72–0. During the regular season game, a continuous clock was triggered when the score differential reached 40 points, but there was no such provision in the rules at the time for its use in the playoffs. Smith Center administrators called the KSHSAA office and received permission to use the running clock starting with the second quarter of the second game with Plainville. (To avoid a recurrence, in 2011 the KSHSAA adopted a modified mercy rule for the playoffs, stating any 11-man postseason contest prior to the championship game would use a running clock in the second half once the margin reached 45 points.)
In October 2008, Naples High School defeated Estero High School, Florida 91–0. Naples was the defending Florida High School Athletic Association Class 3A champion. Despite accusations that Naples ran up the score, Coach Bill Kramer kept most of his star players out of the game for most, if not all of the game. Some Naples parents consequently called the coach to complain that their sons did not play.
Another 91-0 score, this time in 2013 between two Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex programs, state-ranked powerhouse (and eventual UIL Class AAAA Division II state champion) Aledo High School and winless Western Hills High School of Fort Worth, led to a Western Hills parent filing charges of bullying against the Aledo football coach.
In a January 13, 2009 girls' basketball game, Covenant School of Dallas defeated Dallas Academy 100-0.
On January 5, 2015, the San Bernardino Arroyo Valley (CA) High School girls basketball team obliterated Bloomington High by a score of 161–2. Ten days later, San Bernardino suspended coach Michael Anderson for two games.
Professional American football
Running up the score is rarely done by teams in the National Football League (NFL) and other professional American football leagues. A primary reason is that starting players and coaches are paid hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars each year, which is affected by how the players and the team performs during the season. Any attempt to run up the score increases the risks of losing a key player to an injury that could affect the team's chances for the rest of the season. Thus, if a team decides to keep their stars in during a blowout, it is usually viewed by the opponent as an insult. Another factor is that the parity that the salary cap has brought to the NFL in the 1990s has evened out competition somewhat, with less talent disparity between the best and worst teams compared to the past. It is much more difficult to run up the score to embarrassing (50+ point) margins in the modern game at the pro level. The greatest margin of victory at the professional level happened in the 1940 NFL Championship Game won by the Chicago Bears over the Washington Redskins 73–0. In 1976, the Los Angeles Rams defeated the Atlanta Falcons 59–0, a margin which was matched in 2009 when the New England Patriots defeated the Tennessee Titans in the New England snow. Most recently, the New Orleans Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts 62–7 on October 23, 2011, and the Seattle Seahawks defeated the Arizona Cardinals 58–0 on December 9, 2012.
The one exception to this general rule is in regards to the NFL's tiebreaking rules that are used to determine which teams qualify for the playoffs if they are tied in the standings. One criterion to break ties is comparing the total number of points scored by each team during the regular season. Under this scenario, running up the score in a late season game is not considered poor sportsmanship because there is a benefit to having the score higher. This scenario occurred during the 1999 season when the Green Bay Packers could possibly have made the playoffs if the Dallas Cowboys had lost and they had scored enough points against the Arizona Cardinals in their final regular season game to surpass the Carolina Panthers in total points scored. They ended up beating the Cardinals 49–24 (not a huge margin of victory by football standards), but Dallas went on to beat the Giants later that day to earn the final playoff spot and knock the Packers out of the playoff picture anyway.
Accusations of running up the score are unusual in the NFL (except in playoff races), but not unheard of. One of the most notorious occurred on November 17, 1985, when the New York Jets defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 62-28 in a regular season game. The two teams had last met in the final game of the previous season, when Tampa Bay had somewhat controversially appeared to stop playing defense and allowing the Jets to score late in a 41–21 victory in an apparent effort to get the ball back so that running back James Wilder could attempt to break the NFL record for most yards from scrimmage in a season. Commentators wondered if the Jets' huge margin of victory was a way of retaliating against the Bucs for such poor sportsmanship, but the Jets and their coaches denied that there had been any conscious effort to run the score up. The Jets' denials may be valid since Bucs coach John McKay, who allowed the Jets to score late in the 1984 contest, retired after the '84 season and had been replaced by Leeman Bennett, and also the Jets were 12-5 in 1985 and reached the playoffs, while Tampa Bay was in the midst of back-to-back 2-14 seasons in 1985 and '86.
A Monday Night Football game between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys ended in a 212-6 Cowboy victory and some complaints by Green Bay players that the home team's final field goal was an insult to them, as Dallas had the ball deep in Green Bay territory with the game well in hand as it ended, yet chose to score more points anyway. However, the final field goal was not an attempt at embarrassment, but at a record – Cowboys coach Barry Switzer wanted to give kicker Chris Boniol a chance to tie the then-NFL record for most field goals in a game (seven). Similarly, during the 2011 Saints 62-7 victory, while the margin of victory was very large and the game was almost beyond doubt at half-time, Drew Brees had thrown a below his average number of yards. Keeping him and the first offense playing contributed towards his breaking of the single season all time passing record later in the year, and edging out Tom Brady who also broke the old record that season. While it may be considered derisive to the opponents for coaches to push for records, they are a mark in history for the players and the coaches and it is generally accepted among critics[who?] that chasing records is not bad sportsmanship or running up the score per se.
While some teams who regularly score very large number of points are occasionally criticized for running up the score, it is debatable at exactly what point scoring additional points become running up the score. Given recent comebacks such as The Miracle at the New Meadowlands (where the Philadelphia Eagles won by scoring 28 points in the last 7 minutes) and how quickly points can be accumulated (through interception returns, onside kicks and kick returns) it is understandable that coaches are cautious about becoming overconfident in their offenses and they normally prefer to run out the clock rather than risk an unlikely but certainly possible comeback late in the game, particularly for teams who have a strong offense but a weaker defense.
During the 2011 season, the three teams with the best offenses (New England, Green Bay and New Orleans) also had the worst defenses, which explains why none of those teams were happy to run out the clock, instead always pressuring for points. The current salary cap rules mean that it is nearly impossible for a team to have an excellent offense and defense over any period of time, particularly as cheaper players who play very well one year will likely cost more in the next year. Such tactics are generally referred to as 'Keeping their foot on the gas', and is generally not frowned upon in the NFL.
The most egregious known case of running up the score in professional football is believed to have taken place in 1904, when the Massillon Tigers, in the pre-forward pass era, racked up 26 touchdowns and 18 extra points to amass a score of 1482-0 against a team from Marion, Ohio. (Touchdowns only counted five points in this era.) A similar rout had occurred in 1903 when the Watertown Red & Black obliterated an opponent from Cortland, New York by a score of 1422-0. Under then-current rules, the team that had scored received the kickoff instead of kicking it as it is today; however, it was much easier and more common to perform onside kicks in this era, and as far as it's known, neither Marion nor Cortland attempted one. As such, neither team ever touched the ball after receiving the opening possession. The third-highest total in professional football history is much more recent. In 2011, the Erie Explosion indoor football team racked up 138 points in a shutout victory over a team of scrub players playing as the Fayetteville Force. Having blown out the Force 422-0 in the first quarter alone thanks to three Force pick-sixes (including one achieved by a lateral), the Explosion continued to pile on, offering free tickets if the Explosion hit 100 points; when the players and head coach Shawn Liotta were told that the indoor record was 133 points (they were not informed of the overall pro record), they decided to attempt to break it, a feat they succeeded in achieving.
In popular culture
The comic strip Funky Winkerbean had a week-long storyline in September 2015 where Westview High School football's coach, Bull Bushka, is brought before the school board after a parent from an opposing high school filed a complaint that Bushka had intentionally run up the score; Westview, which often is comically portrayed as being on the losing end of one-sided games, had defeated rival Optimism High 93-0. Bushka, however, is quickly vindicated when he mentions that he had pulled his starters, there was a continuous clock in the entire second half and he had not run a passing play.
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