NFL-parity is like the woman you meet in passing. You walk by her in the street sometimes. She looks like the type you’ve been waiting for. Everytime you see her – hair done, nails done, everything done. She’s fancy.
You catch her in your local coffee shop and finally get up the nerve to make small talk. You are blown away by how smart and lucid she is. You go out a couple of times, you meet her friends and everything is looking bright. You make it official and do the couple thing. One day, you pop up at her crib unannounced, and catch her in an honest moment that wrecks everything you thought you had and wanted. Unbeknownst to you, baby girl toots that powder.
Looks can be deceiving.
After years and years of fans and, especially, the NFL itself praising its “any team has a chance” parity mantra, things have hit rock bottom in 2012. Every week, a new team jumps up and catches our attention only to get mollywhopped the very next game. Parity is supposed to open the gates and allow every squad a fair shake at wearing the Super Bowl crown. We all want parity. Parity is the ideal.
Sure, there are some teams that, going in to a season, already know that even their best scenario wouldn’t be good enough. They just don’t have the foundation, the players or the confidence. Every year, a good four or five squads fall into this category.
Everyone else, however, starts dreaming hard in the pre-season – especially if the prognosticators are on their sack, exclaiming to all within earshot that these teams are on the cusp of greatness. In late August, the humidity can make all sorts of things seem believable. In the ‘80s and ‘90s we had a group of rotating powers (San Fran, Chicago, Dallas, NY Giants, Washington and Buffalo) and in this millennium we’ve had Pittsburgh, New England and Indianapolis. Identifiably formidable teams that you knew, off top, teams had to go through in order to win a ring.
In recent years, we’ve seen teams predicted to be merely solid, skip the line and win championships (New Orleans in ’10 and the Giants last year), giving credence to the parity idea. The NFL, through hard work and smart-thinking, had achieved an enviable level of parity that other sports teams desired.
This year however, things are a bit outta sort. Six weeks in, and nobody can say with any confidence, that they know which squads are superior? Anyone you see talking with power and certainty about the NFL pecking order is a hustler, and they’ve decided to make you their next vic.
Every team in the AFC East has the exact same 3-3 record, and half of the franchises in the NFL are either 3-3, 2-3 or 3-2. Last Sunday, the 49ers, whom inarguably have a stellar defense, gave up 116 yards to Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw in a 26-3 blowout IN SAN FRAN. That same Niners team beat the Seattle Seahawks last night 13-6, a week after Seattle beat New England by scoring 14 points in the final 7:31 to smack the Patriots 24-23. We’ve seen this all year.
One of the ingredients that have led to the NFL's dominance is that they’ve been able to strike the right balance between near universal inclusivity and championship pedigree. Even though some unexpected teams break through, there are always squads with familiar names and faces standing in the way. The NBA doesn’t have that and really they never have. I can tell you right now, in mid-October, more about the NBA than the NFL. Either the Heat, Thunder or Lakers are going to win the championship. That’s it. The Celtics have an outside shot, but it’s way outside. There’s no drama there and fans from non-descript locales like Milwaukee and Denver are forced out of the mix so quickly, its almost like they’re playing 82 exhibition games a year. Their season barely matters.
MLB does a good job of creating parity in the postseason, but because of baseball’s financial structure, it’s difficult for small-market teams to stay competitive for a 162-game marathon. It’s like the lotto; you gotta be in it to win it. And the same teams usually get in. Even though the Yankees are eliminated, it looks like St. Louis will make it back to the World Series. Even though the general public seems to forget, the Cards are the defending champs and are second on the all time WS list. Point being, generally, we get a lot of familiar teams participating in the MLB playoffs. Though they have parity, it’s almost mirage-like. It’s hard to tell if it’s real sometimes.
The NFL is in danger of going too far in the opposite direction, with too many non-essential games. What kind of league would the NFL be, if half the teams finished at .500 and the other half are hovering around the break-even mark? Fans need dynamism from their teams and the narrative has to have some level of intrigue. The stakes have to be high enough to keep the blood pumping, otherwise, it takes the form of a task and not an entertainment option. That’s death for the NFL. I’m not advocating that they start creating fake storylines or manipulating the chances for certain teams to come out on top. That would be worse. That would be hell.
But maybe there’s a tweak or two that can be made in free agency or by extending the trade deadline from Week 8 to Week 10 and thus allowing teams that are close to significantly upgrade.
Something small and smart is all I’m asking for; otherwise, we run the risk of the NFL losing the edge that it has built over the last 20 years. If you’re a football fan, you don’t want to see it fall off. You want to see it continue to prosper. This is America’s Game and Americans like to be excited. A league full of middling records/teams just isn’t good enough.