Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Historical Outliers: How Underdogs Overcome Long Odds

by Nick Webster

In week three of 2008 the visiting Miami Dolphins showed up in New England at 0-2, having gone 1-15 the prior year, they were a combined 1-17 in the prior two seasons. The home-standing Patriots were 2-0, despite losing Tom Brady in their opening game win against the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Pats had finished the 2007 season undefeated during the regular season and with one of the top offenses of all-time. What transpired in the three hours plus that followed quickly became football lore.

The Dolphins, 12.5 point underdogs, employed the Wildcat and ran all over the Pats winning by over 20 points and stunning the humiliated Pats. Rodney Harrison was quoted after the game as saying, "I don’t know why in the world we couldn’t stop that play. They just came in and beat out butts."

How unusual a victory was this? Since 1978, according to Pro Football Reference, only six percent of games have a line of 12 points or greater and the underdog wins only 13% of those games, meaning less than one percent of all games feature a 12-plus point underdog winning outright. Given the current schedule, you’d expect a similar such game, perhaps twice a season. However, the margin of victory for the Dolphins was the absolute largest, since 1978, for a 12-plus point underdog; larger than the second best underdog victory by six points. The unveiling of the Wildcat was truly a game to remember, something that happens once in an era. Had a similar situation happened before? And when?

Let’s go back to week eight of 1960, 48 years prior to the Dolphins knocking off the Pats using the Wildcat, to find something similar. It’s November 27, 1960, and the 4-4 San Francisco 49ers are headed across the country to visit the two-time defending NFL Champion Baltimore Colts at home. The Colts are 6-2 and are 16 point favorites over the visiting 49er based on extensive research conducted by Mark Wald on historical lines. What happened that day was truly extraordinary; the 49ers came into Baltimore and beat the favored Colts 30-22, an eight point victory. According to the aforementioned Pro Football Reference, not a single time since 1978 has a team favored by more than 15 points lost by more than a touchdown.
Brodie, Waters, Tittle - 1960, colorization by J Turney
The story of that game comes down that Red Hickey, coach of the 49ers, pulled off victory similar to that of the Dolphins at the Patriots in the 2008 Wildcat game. The 49ers introduced the Shotgun Offense, dropping starting QB John Brodie and later backups Y.A. Tittle and Bob Waters back in an alignment very familiar to those who watch the game today, the Shotgun. This at the time revolutionary move, it’s written, so confused and flustered the Colts that a historic victory was the result. And there’s some evidence in support of this, even the game-day play-by-play record that was captured at the time had difficulty describing what was transpiring, referring repeatedly to the formation as the “Short Punt” that would have been more familiar in the 1940’s with Sammy Baugh. (See the following play-by-play excerpt from the second quarter)

However, the common account of that game likely confuses correlation and causation.  Indeed the 49ers did roll out the Shotgun Offense to confuse a strong Colt pass rush and the 49ers offense performed well. But overlooked in that account of the victory, is the 49ers turnover margin. Johnny Unitas, who was otherwise spectacular – passing for 356 and 3 TD’s on just 30 Attempts – threw a career high five interceptions that day. The Colts team fumbled an additional three times, losing two, for a total of seven Colt turnovers. In the fourth quarter alone Unitas threw two interceptions, the Colts lost a fumble and a missed 42-yard field goal. The 49ers, conversely, did not turn the ball over at all that day. Again, to the Pro Football Reference database, only three times since 1940 has a team with a plus-seven turnover deficit won a football game.

This historic meeting between the Colts and 49ers in 1960 was similar to the 2008 meeting of the Pats and Dolphins in two very specific ways, First: A large home favorite lost to an improbable opponent, Second: A new offensive scheme was rolled out, and while successful, in neither case did that scheme survive in a material sense beyond a season or two of the game where it d├ębuted. However, the storyline that might connect these games – a new scheme confusing a superior opponent and leading to a victory – ignores the basic fact that huge turnover margins are difficult to overcome.

The shotgun would find its way into the NFL mainstream, though it would be decades before it took hold in the manner that the 49ers deployed it. Further, the bigger fallacy of the storyline is the idea that what Hickey broke out on that sunny, crisp Baltimore day was groundbreaking and never seen before. In this way the unveiling of the Shotgun Offense and the Wildcat were similar. The Shotgun having been deployed with some frequency in the 1950’s by the Packers, Redskins, and Cardinals and the Wildcat, an evolution of the old single-wing, albeit with a balanced line.

Everything old is new again, true, there are some truly revolutionary ideas flowing around the game, but we should be cautious when ascribing anyone as the ”creator” of any scheme, for as any historian knows there is very little new under the sun. Not the Wildcat (which I was lucky enough to have seen run for the last time at the college level by Coach Piper at Denison University in 1992, as the single wing), not the Shotgun, not LeBeau’s zone blitz, and on and on. With the occasional truly unique scheme thrown in, the great innovators of today manage to tailor or hone their schemes to make the best of the past in the context of today’s players and rules. More on that, at Pro Football Journal, in the coming weeks and months.

See the Pro Football Hall of Fame account of the game – no account of Colt turnovers, and numerous inaccuracies i.e: “Brodie went down early in the game “here’s the play by play showing Brodie running the QB position in the fourth quarter.

Further, Waters “orchestrated” the comeback, despite throwing two passes, albeit one for a touchdown.



  1. ....outstanding research by mr. webster, and insightful analysis of the scheme used by the Niners.

  2. Great research and analysis. Love the visuals too. Can't wait to read the next entry.