More bad than good at NFL's midseason
With a number of really bad teams halfway through the NFL season, Len Pasquarelli finds himself actually longing for the days of parity.
Never in a million years did I ever think I'd say (or write) this. But at the halfway point of the season, I'm prompted -- particularly after a Monday night Raiders-Seahawks snoozefest that might have rendered even the most desperate insomniac sleepless in Seattle no more -- to make an earnest confession.
I miss parity.
You remember parity, right? The systematic unleavening of the NFL created by commissioner Pete Rozelle and nurtured by Paul Tagliabue, a master plan seemingly aimed at having every league franchise still in playoff contention in the final week of the season. It's the master plan with everyone finishing with 8-8 records and participation in the Super Bowl derby determined by a series of tiebreakers that made the theory of relativity seem like primer stuff.
For a guy who grew up in Pittsburgh, believing it was OK to have dynasty-type franchises even if they weren't always the Steelers, the concept of parity was baneful. After all, dynasties evoked passion, either for or against the powerhouse teams. Parity, well, parodied passion because it allowed the fans in precincts with mediocre teams to believe their 9-7 heroes really had a chance to win a championship.
It was, for the most part, fabricated fanaticism. But, for the NFL and its broadcast partners, it worked, even if most football purists denounced it. And now, grudgingly, and after having witnessed firsthand a lot of bad football through the first nine weeks of the season, I kind of wish parity was back.
The league, of course, would have you believe that parity hasn't gone anywhere. The powers that be point to the number of different playoff teams the past five or six seasons, the fact that Super Bowl champions don't repeat anymore, the reality that there always seem to be 20 or more franchises still in postseason contention in the final month of the campaign. And the raw numbers certainly support those contentions.
But at this point of the 2006 season, it sure feels as though parity is a defunct concept.
"You look at our division," Baltimore strongside linebacker Adalius Thomas said Sunday after the Ravens defeated defending division champion Cincinnati, a chic pick to contend for a Super Bowl berth. "We're playing really well, and I don't want to [diminish] what we have accomplished to this point. But the Bengals aren't playing like they did last year. Pittsburgh is hurting. I mean, we're not taking anything for granted, but here we are with a two-game lead [in the division]. And you almost never see that in [the AFC North]."
Fact is, you almost never see it anywhere in the NFL, but at the halfway point of the season, five of the eight division leaders own advantages of two or more games.
Only half the divisions in the league feature two or more teams with winning records. Yet there are five divisions that have at least two teams each with three or fewer victories. The disparity in revenues over which owners continue to battle has, it appears, trickled down to the playing field.
There are a dozen teams with winning records, 13 on the debit side of the ledger and seven franchises at .500. Eight clubs, led by undefeated Indianapolis, have six or more wins, but 13 have three or fewer victories. That doesn't exactly jibe with the Rozellian model for parity.
In truth, examining the numbers from the halfway points of the past few seasons, the demise of parity has been sort of a devolutionary process rather than a quick-death event.
Since 2002, when the expansion Houston Texans entered the NFL and the league realigned into eight divisions, there has been only one season, 2005, in which winning teams outnumbered losing ones after the ninth week of play. And last season was even worse at the halfway point in terms of competitive balance; there were eight teams with six or more wins and 14 with three or fewer wins. Fact is, the middle class in the league, the subset of .500 teams, is bigger this season than in any since 2002.
A few more surprising numbers: In the first 128 games of the season, 45.7 percent of the contests have been decided by seven or fewer points and 26.8 percent by three or fewer. Those are certainly in line with the full-season numbers of so-called "close games" in the past quarter century. If the 26.8 percent figure for three-point games held up for the entire season, it would be the highest since 1997.
Countering those statistics, though, is the reality that there have been an inordinately high number of routs so far this season. There have been 29 contests in which the margin of victory was at least 20 points, nine in which it was 30 or more points, even two games decided by more than 40 points.
Given that 45 games, more than one-third of the total NFL schedule, have been decided by 14 or more points, perhaps it's no surprise that the average winning margin to date is 11.7 points, nearly two points more than at this time a year ago.
It might be hyperbole to suggest the NFL has been relegated to a league of haves and have-nots. Certainly the superiority of some franchises, unlike in baseball, isn't reflective of the money invested in player payrolls. Just try asking Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder about that. And there are still, nearly every weekend, upsets that boggle the mind. But not quite as many of them.
At the season's midway point, it's more a league of disparity. And although it's tough to admit, the alternative, all things considered, might be more entertaining.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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