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The Downside of NFL Parity

The other leagues are supposed to be jealous.

The NFL hails parity as a way to keep the casual fan interested because it prolongs the local team’s odds of making the playoffs. And once there, anyone can beat anyone – for proof, just read down the list of recent Super Bowl champs. Rams. Ravens. Patriots. A who’s-who of preseason chumps and historical pariahs that made it to Disneyland, providing legions of once-forlorn fans a reason to finally rejoice.

But to hell with parity – I miss the juggernauts. I miss watching teams dominate the regular season, creating a playoff atmosphere dripping with anticipation and the chance for eternal grid-iron glory. Those playoff games were events, match-ups of incredible teams that could give rise to that other d-word, dynasty. Dynasties, or the threat of them, make the playoffs that much more enticing.

And I’m not that picky. I don’t need a team to win the whole enchilada every year. I just want prolonged excellence. The Purple People Eaters, the K-Gun Offense – they both failed in four Super Bowls, but I’ll take any of it these days. Dynasties brought you the Immaculate Reception, the West Coast Offense, and the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. Love them or hate them, great teams are exciting. They bring out passion, fervor, exhilaration. They bring you the NFL we know and love.

Parity, on the other hand, has brought you … well, it’s brought you this year’s NFL. Take the AFC, where only four teams finished below .500: Jacksonville, Houston, Baltimore, and Cincinnati. Jacksonville finally paid the price for playing salary-cap roulette; Houston was an expansion team; and Cincinnati, well hey, it’s the Bengals. Baltimore was one of the worst 7-9 teams ever assembled. Miami or OSU might have gone 7-9 in the AFC this year.

The problem, of course, is that it’s symptomatic of mediocrity – everybody gets their eight wins because nobody is any good. You like statistics? No team in the AFC won 70% their games this year. That means the best teams in the AFC are about as likely to win a game as Shaq is to hit a free throw. Records are meaningless, which helps explain why the 9-7 Jets beat the 10-6 Colts 41-0 in the first round. It means there are no juggernaut match-ups, no unplug-the-phone games to anticipate and savor. No NFL that we know and love.

That doesn’t mean all the playoff games will be bad. Pittsburgh’s tough win over the Browns was terrific, as was the Giants win/loss at San Francisco (and I’m sorry, but any team that blows a 24-point lead shouldn’t complain about the refs missing the last play). But as nice it is to see a good football game, I just wish it wasn’t because the teams are equally average. I’d rather watch great games between great teams, games that people will remember and talk about years from now. Those match-ups are harder and harder to come by these days.

There’s a joke going around that Paul Tagliabue can die happy when every team in the league finishes 8-8. Good luck, Paul – one conference down, one to go.

Oh, and keep your eye on those Bengals – they could be next year’s champs.

January 21, 2003
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