Now that we've been arguing about competitive balance in baseball for the last few months, it's time for the NFL season, that laboratory for competitive balance.
"Parity" used to be the overused word for what's now described with the overused phrase "competitive balance." The NFL pursued it with a religious zeal in the years when it was taking over the American sporting scene, and the promised land was a world in which "on any given Sunday, any NFL team can beat any other NFL team."
Mission accomplished. Not only can any given team beat any other given team on any given Sunday, but any given team can go to any given Super Bowl. And then the next given year they can go right back to sucking, which they'd been doing the given year before they went to the given Super Bowl.
The season begins when the San Francisco 49ers visit the New York Giants Thursday night. Stirs the blood, don't it? "On any given Thursday ..." You remember the Giants, don't you? They were lousy last year. And they were lousy three years ago. And the year in between they went to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Baltimore Ravens, who had been lousy the year before, and ...
Football's almost total revenue sharing and strict salary cap rules mean that there aren't rich and poor teams. Everybody works with pretty much the same bag of money, and with smart drafting and savvy use of the salary cap -- you'll need a full-time "capologist" to keep track of the extremely complicated and yet somehow not at all interesting cap issues -- you too can be a winner.
Football fans brag that in their sport, unlike in baseball, small-market teams can flourish, but actually there's no such thing as a small market in football. The NFL is a national television show, and its stadiums are TV studios that need to be filled only eight times a year, 10 if there are the maximum two home playoff games. A town half the size of Green Bay, the NFL's smallest market by far, could probably support a team. The Bismarck Buffaloes, perhaps.
Just as baseball's lack of competitive balance has been overstated in the last few years, the effectiveness of football's competitive balance program is usually overstated.
While it's true that revenue sharing means there aren't any poor teams, it's also true that having money doesn't mean you can't still stink. You can still mismanage yourself right out of competitive balance. The Cincinnati Bengals haven't had a winning team since 1990. The Seattle Seahawks haven't won a playoff game since 1984. The St. Louis Rams, before their current run, had gone nine years without a winning record.
The Arizona Cardinals have had one winning season since 1984, when they were still in St. Louis: They went 9-7 four years ago. They haven't won 10 games in a season since the NFL expanded the schedule to 16 games in 1978. Except for the expansion Devil Rays, all of the clubs cited as evidence of baseball's unfairness -- the Pirates, Royals, Twins, Brewers, A's, Padres, Tigers, etc. -- have had World Series teams since then. The Arizona Cardinals make the Pittsburgh Pirates look like the New York Yankees.
The NFL weights its schedule to favor last year's losers. Teams that have good records one year play a schedule laden with other good teams the next year, while bad teams get to play other bad teams. The weighted schedule conspires with two other factors to make football look more competitive than baseball: the number of teams that make the playoffs, and the brevity of the season.
Of course more football teams than baseball teams are in the hunt late in the year. Twelve teams make the playoffs in the NFL, as opposed to eight in baseball. Also, 16 games just isn't long enough for teams to separate from each other, for the best teams to establish their dominance. If a good team stumbles out of the gate, it might not have time to right itself and get back into first place before the season ends. If the baseball season were 16 games long, the Mets, Pirates, Giants, Mariners, White Sox, Indians and Red Sox all would have made the playoffs this year. (The other team would have been the Diamondbacks.)
Having said all that, I have to admit that, unless you live in Phoenix or Cincinnati, or maybe Seattle, it's pretty exciting to know that even though the local 11 might stink, it's not unreasonable to believe they might make the Super Bowl in a year. Heck, even the Cardinals are talking playoffs, because they've, um, well, because they haven't started losing yet. They'll stop talking that way soon.
But I'd say that extreme competitive balance is not an unqualified success. I think a sport is better off if it has teams that can build themselves into winners and then stay on top for a few years. The NFL was much more interesting, I think, when it had teams that dominated for a little while, a half-decade or more. You got to know the Steelers, say, or the Cowboys, Vikings, Raiders or Dolphins, and you either loved them or hated them.
Now, you're just starting to learn the personality of the latest out-of-nowhere Super Bowl team -- the current New England Patriots, for instance -- and bam! They're gone, busted up because of salary cap considerations. The Baltimore Ravens, champions the year before last, have been scattered to the four winds. When the owner of the Florida Marlins did the same thing to his team after it won the 1997 World Series, it was considered an affront to everything decent in the Western world, and rightly so. The fact that the system, rather than a greedy owner, forces teams to be splintered apart doesn't make it any more palatable.
I think football fans will come around to this view sooner or later. One of the favorites to win the NFC this year is the Rams, who are considered a miracle of longevity for keeping a good team together for four years. But hey, why not the Vikings or Cowboys, who were 5-11 last year, just as the champion Patriots were in 2000? Or maybe the Falcons or Saints, who were 7-9? So were the Cardinals. Why not them? And while I'm asking questions here, can you name three Cardinals other than Jake Plummer?
A nice Falcons-Chiefs Super Bowl this year, followed by perhaps Lions-Browns two years from now, and fans will be longing for the good old days when any given team could beat any given team on any given Sunday, but on Super Bowl Sunday, what we were given was a couple of good teams, teams we knew pretty well, and had learned to love or hate.
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With the caveat that I'm always wrong with my predictions about baseball, which is supposedly so predictable, so I therefore must not have a chance to be right about football, here are my picks for 2002.
These predictions are arrived at by using the following formula: In-depth knowledge of the facts, figures, players and teams -- 5 percent. Whacked-out hunches, the details of which I won't bore you with -- 85 percent. Desire to goad humorless football fans into sending me blistering, foaming-at-the-mouth e-mails informing me of my stupidity -- 10 percent.
I strongly advise you not to use the following as the basis for wagering if your money means anything to you, and ask you to note that I, alone among national sportswriters, go West to East in these things:
NFC division champs: 49ers, Buccaneers, Bears, Eagles
NFC Wild Cards: Rams, Falcons
NFC champs: Buccaneers
AFC division champs: Chargers (you heard me), Titans, Steelers, Dolphins
AFC Wild Cards: Colts, Patriots
AFC champs: Steelers
Super Bowl winner: Steelers