As usual, late on Sunday, the betting numbers for next week’s NFL games popped up at the sportsbook. Unusual was one number that stood out from the others — the Kansas City Chiefs laying a full three touchdowns playing host to the New York Jets. Media pundits who generally avoid discussing NFL betting chuckled publicly about the -21 point spread.
Bettors meanwhile, on principle, were busy taking all the +21, +20½ and +20 books would afford them. The line has dropped to +19½ but sparked a public discussion about huge points spreads, how often they occur and the general outcome. What’s less understood is how disproportionate games like Jets-Chiefs prompted the invention of the pointspread a generation before.
Horses, Fisticuffs and Pigskin
Long ago, before there was a point spread, or a professional version of the game, people bet on football. At the turn of the 20th century, a fad swept through some northeastern American colleges. This fad, a mutation of rugby and mob ball, caught on thanks to some structure of the rules (by a fellow named Walter Camp) and soon became a craze.
Fueled by school rivalries, popularity in this sport grew to support a betting market between different institutions’ faithful and alumni. Not long after, those who would become the first football bookmakers began brokering bets between fans. The public was not unfamiliar with sports betting. The most popular (human) sports of the day were baseball and boxing, and their betting markets used a system previously created for horse racing — fractions.
Books still use fractional odds today. This week you can bet the Detroit Lions to win outright against the Indianapolis Colts at 27/20. In an era long before pocket calculators, doing mental math with fractions wasn’t compelling for the average bettor. This fraction means you could bet $20 to win $27, but working this way proved cumbersome and would soon be replaced by another system.
New Odds, Same Problem
Somewhere along the way, American oddsmakers adopted their own scheme (which we now call U.S/ odds) using the familiar -110 or +110 symbols. Since it proved easier to explain how the Lions were +135 underdogs (instead of 27/20) the new system displaced the old in most sports betting. (The horses stuck with their fractions.)
But U.S. odds suffered from the same problem as fractions. (They were, after all, just different representations of the same value.) That problem was one-sided contests. Dating to the earliest boxing matches on which people made wagers, bookies dreaded fights with heavy favorites. Mostly because the public would lay the heavy favorite at 1/6 or 1/8, leaving the book with a heavy overlay and the likelihood they’d be paying out at the end of the fight.
Other sports faced the same dilemma. A football bookie in 1926 wouldn’t want to take action when the Frankford Yellow Jackets took the train to Columbus to kick the snot out of the Canton Bulldogs. He could make it 1/20, but in the end he’d be holding a bunch of $20 bills for a few hours before paying back in singles.
Inventing the Half-Point
After World War II, when football’s popularity began to really surge, in no small part thanks to televised broadcasts, another betting system came into prominence. Like any good invention, even the point spread comes with a debate about its original creator. Credited to a man named Charles McNeil who undoubtedly borrowed concepts from other places, the point spread was born.
The goal was to balance betting action on heavily lopsided games. When one team’s win probability for a game approached single digits, meaning they had less than a 10% chance to win, it was a good time to break out the point spread. These equalizers would commonly be huge numbers — +28, +31½, how about +42½?
The concept didn’t necessarily catch on like wildfire. The point spread was not something common to a 1960s football bettor. Even after an explanation of how their team could somehow get 3½ points (how do you score a half point?) they would be likely to mutter “points are for pansies” (or something more vulgar) and take the moneyline. But for the really unbalanced matches, the point spread offered a chance to wager on a game that would otherwise have seen little action.
Sadly, line histories from the 1950s through to the early 1970s don’t survive today. Only word-of-mouth history describes some of the contests, mainly the larger ones. The rest of the history, as they say, is just that. Football’s popularity grew to eclipse other sports, and after the merger of the 1960s grew into a nationwide televised weekly event.
Over that time, the point spread grew in popularity, offered not just for heavy mismatches but closer games as well, bettors grew accustomed to “lower” point spreads between 10-14, or even as low as a touchdown. Eventually, all games would be posted with a point spread, not just a moneyline.
Fortunately we do have records for modern games, if you don’t mind defining “modern” as the slew of rule changes implemented in 1974. In this era before the salary cap, disparity between teams existed, but the demand of professional football meant that only in the most imbalanced contests would a betting line need to exceed two touchdowns. Then came the Bucs.
The Creamsicle Expansion Buccaneers
In the days when it was unthinkable an NFL team could go all 14 games in a season winless (that’s how many were played then), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers appeared as though they could change that. In 1976, the league finally completed its plan to expand to 28 teams, welcoming franchises in Seattle and Tampa. Both teams suffered start-up pains, as their expansion draft was far less generous than later ones. The Bucs, however, set the standard for epic bad.
Losers of 26 (!) straight, the creamsicle-era Buccaneers didn’t score a point until their third game. In fact, for the top 12 largest point spreads we have a record, three of them concern this Tampa Bay team.
Oddsmakers laid the second-highest known modern point spread on the Bucs after they lost a dozen games to start their franchise. Traveling to Pittsburgh to face the 8-4 Steelers, books offered as many as 27 points on the game.The Steelers covered by halftime and won the game 42-0.
The following week, the Bucs played host to the 10-3 New England Patriots, this time catching 21 points. To their credit, they ended their horrible season with a point-spread cover, losing by only 17, the final 31-14. It ranks as the ninth highest known spread.
The Bucs’ horror show continued into the following year, early in the season facing the Dallas Cowboys (who were 3-0 at the time and would go on to win the Super Bowl). Oddsmakers lined the Cowboys as 23-point chalk, still the sixth highest modern spread. Dallas failed to cover the massive number, winning by a score of 23-7.
Stars vs Scabs: The Players’ Strike
It would take another decade and a major labor dispute before books would again offer such large NFL spreads. In a crazy October in 1987, the Players’ Association went on strike and the league replaced their players with scabs. To complicate matters, some teams’ players crossed the picket lines, facing opponents composed essentially of fifth-string unsigned backups. By the second week of the labor dispute, bookmakers went nuts.
Two elite teams, the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers already had their starters crossing the picket lines to play, while their opponents that week were playing entirely with replacements. The Cowboys faced the Philadelphia Eagles (without Randall Cunningham or anyone else really) as 21½-point favorites, eighth-highest known spread. Similarly, the replacements wearing Atlanta Falcons’ jerseys would face the Niners’ with Joe Montana, Roger Craig, Howie Long and Reggie White and so on. (Let’s remember that Jerry Rice did not cross the picket line.) Oddsmakers set the 49ers with the fifth-highest known side as 23- or 24-point faves. (Sources differ.)
The scrappy underdogs won the betting narrative that week. San Francisco was never within the number, winning only by a 25-17 final. Dallas stretched to a 31-point lead in the third quarter, but gave up two garbage time touchdowns making the final 41-22, and failing to cover by the better number.
In the years just before the salary cap was implemented in 1994, disparity in the league grew enough that a few times a meeting between the haves and have-nots led to monster point spreads. The 12th-highest known spread was booked in 1991, when the hapless 0-6 Colts knew their season was over thanks to a series of suspensions and injuries. In the middle of playing out a long string of losses, they met the Buffalo Bills (who would go on to lose the second of their four Super Bowl appearances).
The Bills had come off a loss ruining their perfect record, and books set them as 20-point home favorites who would look to take out their previous loss on these Colts. In this case, the Bills passed the ball just 12 times, and handed the ball to Thurman Thomas and the other backs who hung 273 yards on the Colts en route to a 42-6 spread cover.
Similarly, two teams ran into the buzzsaw that was the 1992-93 San Francisco 49ers under their fresh new quarterback Steve Young. First, the Buccaneers (remember them?) who were now 16 years old, had a total of three winning seasons, their brief heyday a decade past.
But this was a rebuilding year for Tampa Bay, and what started as a promising era under newly hired veteran head coach Sam Wyche with two season-opening wins, soon turned to a 4-10 slide as they traveled to Candlestick Park. Vegas thought so little of the Bucs, they installed the Niners as 20-point home favorites, the 11th-largest point spread. Bucs’ quarterback Vinny Testeverde was having none of that, by the way, as he hooked up with Anthony McDowell on a 51-yard opening drive touchdown pass. Sure, Tampa Bay went on to lose 21-14, but the Niners never sniffed a point-spread cover.
The following year, that same San Francisco team met another franchise in the process of rebuilding.The Cincinnati Bengals were in their second season with first-time head coach David Shula hoping to do better than the previous year’s 5-11 finish. Well, spoiler alert — Shula would put up back-to-back 3-13 seasons, only being fired the following year never to coach in the NFL again. (Talk about a long coaching leash.)
But on this particular Sunday, the Bengals came into Candlestick having broken their 10-game losing streak the week before against the Raiders. Now the fourth-highest known spread, books made the Niners a 24-point home favorite, the second-highest spread posted at the time. Thank the defense that day, as they had a safety and picked off Young twice, setting up two field goals, their only scores. It was enough to cover the spread though, as the Niners put up only three touchdowns, winning 21-8.
Almost Perfect: The 2007 Patriots
In the salary-cap era, disparity hasn’t gone away, but it has led to a more competitive playing field for all teams, so large 20-point gaps didn’t occur for awhile. That is, until one team unlocked how to dominate within those rules.The New England Patriots in 2007 had three Super Bowl rings of their own over the previous six years, and were on the verge of etching their dynasty permanently into the record books.
They weren’t just beating other teams, they were humiliating them. Averaging more than 40 points per game, they crushed point spreads and opposing defenses. Coming out of their bye week, they spanked the Buffalo Bills in their own stadium to a 56-10 final. The hype was overwhelming, and talk continued as to whether the Patriots could not just go undefeated for 19 games, but set all-time offensive scoring records in the process.
The following Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles travelled to Foxboro to face the Pats without their starting quarterback Donovan McNabb. What now stands as the third-highest spread, New England laying 24½ or 25 points was, at the time, the largest chalk since the 1976 Buccaneers. Backup A.J. Feely threw three touchdowns as the Eagles covered easily, taking a lead into the fourth quarter and ultimately losing by a field goal.
The giant point spreads cooled off for a couple of weeks while New England faced its last two opponents expected to challenge its undefeated regular season. Once it beat the Ravens and Steelers, the hype train rolled on uninterrupted, as the Patriots played host to the Jets.
The Jets were in the middle of a failed coaching experiment with Eric Mangini. Although they hadn’t yet hit peak Mangini (that would be the following year when they signed Brett Favre) they were playing out the string, with a 3-10 record. Sportsbooks set New England as a 20½-point favorite, the 10th-highest point spread. The Pats failed to score 21 in the end, winning by a 20-10 final.
The week after was a different story. The juggernaut Patriots played host to the Miami Dolphins. (The Dolphins would rather you forget about that year.) Their disposable coach Cam Cameron and quarterback Cleo Lemon were on a 13-game slide. Going into December, it seemed pretty clear to observers that the NFL could see its first single-season 16-loss team. Their luck changed as they got off the schneid with an overtime win over Baltimore just the week before.
Fat and happy as a 1-13 team can be, Miami next traveled to New England, where sportsbooks gave them +22½ points over the Pats, the seventh-highest spread. On the Dolphins’ side, defenders Joey Porter and Jason Taylor played out of their minds, harassing Tom Brady into two interceptions. It was enough to stop a blowout, as the Pats hung 28 on the Dolphins, then took their foot off the gas. A Miami third-quarter touchdown made the final 28-7, and the dog covered once again.
The Most Lopsided Game in (Projected) History
The final story of the highest-known modern point spread is as anticlimactic as it is perfect in theme. The Denver Broncos entered their second year with veteran Peyton Manning under center. Tweaked in the offseason, Denver wanted nothing less than a Super Bowl trophy to cap off its 2013 campaign, having lost the previous year in the divisional round of the playoffs to the Ravens (who would go on to win the championship).
Starting the year 5-0, averaging a stunning 46 points per game, the Broncos played host to the winless Jacksonville Jaguars. The Gus Bradley era had just begun in Jacksonville with the hopes the coach could have a long tenure like their previous two. So Bradley had lots of leash as he carried his 0-5 team into Mile High. Twice so far in that short season, Denver scored more points in a single game than Jacksonville had all year combined.
Curiously, the game didn’t feature a team with replacement players, or major injuries or a labor dispute. Not only did Jacksonville come into the game with a healthy quarterback, it came with two — and they both stunk. In the previous five games, Bradley swapped his starting quarterbacks and people were beginning to have serious discussions they might move to a two QB set.
It mattered not as sportsbooks excited casual observers by hanging the largest point spread anyone had seen: a whopping four touchdowns — Denver -28. Books that dared hang a moneyline priced the Broncos at -8000 and up. The Jaguars at +28 didn’t last all that long, in reality. Bettors were quick to take the price down to below the four-touchdown mark, but when it bottomed out at -26 and -26½ market support came back for the Broncos. By game day, some had Denver at -26½, others had Jacksonville +27. Both numbers were still freely available at kickoff.
After the opening quarter, Denver clearly had control and a 14-0 lead. But the underdog hero of the story, Jags’ linebacker Paul Posluszny snatched a Manning pass for a 59-yard house call. The Jaguars nearly went into the locker down 14-12., Denver never scored enough to cover the giant number even if Jacksonville did nothing in the second half. The most lopsided projection in NFL modern history ended 35-19.
Ranking the Jets
Do we rank the Jets in the top 10? They’re no longer catching 20-points or more, but could lay claim to being included in this list. Among the other handful of games not counted here with 19½-point spreads, these Jets are well within the top 20 of fatest underdogs in modern NFL history.
But the more important part, were you keeping score? Do you know how many of these 20-point behemoths ended up covering? Two. A historic record of 2-10 with a time span as vast as its sample size is tiny. Though that means it might not make the strongest betting angle, everyone who has ever laid points on a team — and watched as they more than happily won the game by as little as a single point — knows that many factors have to line up in order to end with more than a three-touchdown disparity on the scoreboard.
The Jets under Adam Gase might be the worst football New Jersey’s seen since the Chester-Pollard Co. made a mechanical version of the sport you could play for a nickel, but they’re still a humiliated and professional football team under contract to play. (Not to mention, everyone on the team would be happy to bolster their own highlight reel for when those contracts allow them to flee to another team.)
The Kansas City Chiefs could name the score here if they wanted, but their goal will be to simply notch an injury-free win. No one in their right mind is laying -19½ points with an Andy Reid coached team. We’d recommend taking the points now, or even waiting to see if developing news pushes it back to 20 and grabbing it then.
Our solace when the Jets lose, like 27-3, will be how it was only the third time in history such a thing has happened.