Scary news for the NFL: Parity is dead (finally!)
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Oct 27, 2009
By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts gridiron gravedigger
Rest in peace, parity.
The NFL's decades-long effort to produce equality on the playing field is dead and buried. In fact, it suffered a gruesome, unwatchable demise in Week 7 of the 2009 season and was declared dead by the pigskin coroner called the Cold, Hard Football Facts at 7:15 p.m. on Sunday, Oct 25.
Perhaps it's only fitting that parity's final bloody demise came just days before Halloween, in a week that produced a record six four-touchdown blowouts in the space of a few hours on Sunday.
Parity is not only dead, it's been walking around like the undead for most of the past decade, kept alive only by lazy pigskin "pundits" who dusted the cobwebs off the catch-phrase everytime they needed to explain away every close game or surprising playoff run.
But instead of parity, what the NFL has these days is something much more frightening: the NFL has a crisis of competition.
Week after week this year, the haunting disparity between the league's haves and have-nots threatens to produce results we typically see from the University of Florida's non-conference schedule.
The NFL, like college football, is now a two-tiered league in which the powerful elite can be reasonably counted upon to not only win on Sunday, but to humiliate the league's second-class citizens.
Here are six signs that parity is dead:
ONE – The frightening pace of blowouts
Week 7 of the 2009 season offered more televised beatings than the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Six of the 13 game last week games were uncompetitive blowouts – each decided by 28 points or more. If that rash of routs seemed unusual, there's a good reason: it was.
Pro football had produced six four-touchdown blowouts just once before in its history: back in Week 14 of the 1970 season, the very first year of the AFL-NFL merger.
The average margin of victory here in Week 7 was 20.3 PPG, the second highest weekly margin of victory since the merger, trailing only that final week of 1970 (23.5 PPG), according to Cold, Hard Football Facts contributor Mark Wald, who tracks blowouts throughout history.
A string of one-sided affairs might have been expected back in 1970.
First, it was the last week of a 14-game season and some teams had already packed it in for the year. Second, despite victories by the AFL in the Super Bowls III and IV, the old NFL (now the NFC) absolutely dominated the first year of the merger. NFC teams went 27-12-1 against AFC teams that year, the most lopsided interconference record since the merger.
We shouldn't expect those kinds of blowouts in these days of league-wide efforts to level the playing field. But we're seeing them.
The worst part for the NFL is that fans could see most of last Sunday's blowouts coming: Green Bay over one-win Cleveland (31-3), New England over winless Tampa (35-7), Indianapolis over winless St. Louis (42-6) and San Diego over one-win Kansas City (37-7) were all as predictable as the tides.
And, remember, these blowouts came just a week after perennial powerhouse New England handed Tennessee a 59-0 beating – the league's most one-sided game in 33 years. It could have been worse: the Patriots did not score a single point in the fourth quarter, or they might have matched the league's record 73-0 victory set back in 1940 when the Bears beat the Redskins in the NFL title game.
TWO – Last-second thrills and chills are hard to find
Year after year, week after week, one NFL game after another came down to a last-second play that determined the outcome. It made for great theater in a sport that thrives on televised drama.
That drama is slowly disappearing.
Here in 2009, 84 of 103 games (81.6 percent) have been decided by more than a field goal. That's the most in nearly a quarter century (since 1985) and the third most since the AFL-NFL merger. The trend began last year when 206 of 254 games (80.5 percent) were decided by more than a field goal – also among the most since the merger.
Double-digit blowouts, meanwhile, have become the rule here in 2009, not the exception: 56 of 103 games (54.4%) have been decided by 10 points or more – the most in 17 years and also among the most since the merger.
THREE – The horrifying divide in the standings
For the first time in NFL history there are three undefeated teams after Week 7 – Indianapolis, Denver and New Orleans.
And all three look virtually unbeatable – dominating opponents week after week in virtually all phases of the game.
But at the very same time that the NFL boasts three unbeatens nearly halfway through the season, the NFL also fields three winless teams, Tennessee, Tampa and St. Louis. These teams barely look competitive – getting dominated week after week in virtually all phases of the game.
This great divide, meanwhile, comes after a pair of historic NFL seasons. In 2007, the Patriots became the first 16-0 team in league history; in 2008, the Lions became the first 0-16 team in league history.
The Patriots also set an NFL record in 2008 with their 21st consecutive regular-season victory. The Lions, meanwhile, suffered their 19th straight defeat earlier this year – the second longest losing streak in league history.
Given the respective performances of the league's powerful and powerless franchises this year, it's its easy to envision a scenario in which we could have both a 16-0 team and 0-16 team here in 2009.
A league ruled by "parity" simply does not produce historically good and historically bad seasons year after year.
FOUR – The gruesome disparity on the scoreboard
The unbeaten Saints average 39.7 PPG – a mark which puts them on pace to surpass the single-season scoring record of 38.8 PPG set by the 1950 Rams and surpass the modern record of 36.8 PPG set by the 2007 Patriots.
The scoring pace for New Orleans is no surprise, really, in a league that has done everything in its power to open up offenses and handcuff defenses.
But not every team's taking advantage of the league's beneficence.
In fact, at the same time that teams like the Saints, Patriots, Colts and Giants seemingly score at will, some teams are so poor on offense that they need to panhandle for points.
- The Saints have scored 31 touchdowns this year (26 on offense).
- The Browns have scored just six touchdowns this year (four on offense).
In fact, the Browns have scored just four offensive touchdowns in their past 13 games, dating all the way back to Thanksgiving of 2008. It's one of the longest streaks of offensive futility in history, and it comes at the very same time that the Saints are producing one of the great streaks of offensive success in history.
And while the Saints are on pace to become the most prolific scoring team in NFL history (39.7 PPG), the Rams have scored just 8.6 PPG here in 2009 – a pace which would make them the lowest scoring team of the Live Ball Era (1978-present).
FIVE – The bloodbath on the stat sheets
The gridiron Grand Canyon that divides the league's winners and losers is also evident on the stat sheet. In fact, we haven't seen these kinds of disparities in statistical performances since the early days of the AFL.
Peyton Manning, for example, once again leads the league in passer rating (114.5), a mark which could go down as one of the highest ever (he holds the record with a 121.1 passer rating in 2004).
Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson, meanwhile, has posted an abysmal passer rating of 40.6. He's on pace to become the lowest-rated qualifying passer (14 attempts per game) since Ryan Leaf in 1998 (39.0). Oakland's JaMarcus Russell is not much better (47.2).
Neither Anderson nor Russell has completed even 50 percent of their passes this year. Manning, meanwhile, has completed 72.6 percent of his passes, a rate which would easily smash the existing NFL record.
It's like the NFL is offering two completely different sports this year: on one end, there's the highly productive Space Age passing game that defenses are hopeless to stop; on the other end, there's a a Neanderthalic, Stone Age passing game with numbers more like those we saw in the 1930s.
(In fact, Chicago's Bronko Nagurski, posted a 67.8 passer rating in 1932, his third year in the league; Oakland's Russell has posted a 47.2 passer rating here in 2009, his third year in the league.)
New England quarterback Tom Brady this year matched an NFL record with five TD tosses in a single quarter, in his team's 59-0 win over the Titans. A full quarter of the league this year, eight teams, have thrown five or fewer TD passes all year.
Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, meanwhile, averages a spectacular 9.3 yards every time he throws a pass – he could end up with one of the 10 highest averages in NFL history. Cleveland's Anderson, meanwhile, averages just 4.4 yards per pass attempt. That number is so bad that a quarter of the teams in the NFL this year average more than 4.4 YPA when they run the ball.
SIX – The haunting specter of elite powers
Advocates of NFL "parity" say that any team can win in any given year. Sure, it happens from time to time. But the league's always been like that.
The fact of the matter in today's NFL is that four teams – all in the AFC – have held an iron grip over the NFL for more than a decade.
Denver, Indy, New England and Pittsburgh can be counted on year after year – with the occasional exception here and there – to stand among the very best teams in the NFL.
In fact, these four teams have won 11 of the past 14 AFC titles. They've won six of the past eight Super Bowls and eight of the past 12. Over the last 15 years, the AFC's Big Four have filled 19 of 30 spots in the AFC title game.
There's a good chance you'll see the NFL's Big Four battling for the right to go to the Super Bowl once again. They're a combined 22-4 after Week 7 and, if the playoffs began today, they'd hold four of the top five seeds in the AFC. There's a good chance that one of the Big Four will hoist the Lombardi Trophy, once again, in February 2010.
The Colts, meanwhile, are in the midst of an unprecedented string of six straight 12 win seasons and well on their way to making it seven straight -- facts alone which should kill any notion of "parity."
The Patriots, of course, are two years removed from the first 16-0 season in history, they won a record 34 games over two seasons earlier this decade (2003-04), they need one postseason victory to set a record for most in a decade (15) and they've set every win streak in history this decade, regular season (21), postseason (10) and combined (21). Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, meanwhile, has won a record 78.5 percent of every game he's started (106-29) in his career. Again, all facts that should, on their face, prove that concepts such as "parity" are dead.
There's no perfect explanation for the death of parity, especially in the wake of the league's open efforts to keep it alive. But it's obvious that the league's efforts to legislate equality have failed.
Here's one guess why: the NFL, with so many players and so many coaches and so much turnover and so many moving parts, is all about management. And, right now, management has never been more important.
Humans are not equal in talent, whether they're in the front office, on the sidelines, or in the huddle, and the notion that a few rules will "level the playing field" is being mocked openly on the field right now.
What the NFL has done, actually, is create a system that ends up rewarding well managed teams and punishing poorly managed teams. The Colts, Patriots and Steelers continue to fine tune the system year after the year and win year after year. The Browns, Lions and teams like (in recent years) the Redskins make poor and sometimes desperate off-the-field decisions that make them uncompetitive on the field.
Back in the day, before the efforts to "level the playing field," a poorly managed team could splurge for a season or two on talent and compete. Money is the great equalizer. But that weapon has been removed and now, more than ever, not less than ever, NFL teams are dependent upon smart decision makers and good executives. The NFL has maximized, not minimized, inequality on the playing field by maximizing the importance of management.
It adds up the NFL's crisis of competition and league executives should be afraid. Be very afraid.
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