- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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Since the inception of the NFL salary cap in 1994, the league has been seen as the bastion of parity. After all, in no other major professional sport are so many fans convinced that their team has a chance of winning the title when the season begins.
So what's with all this dynasty talk?
If so many fans think their team has a chance to win, what is wrong with the system if a team now has a chance of winning three Super Bowls in four years? If the Patriots prevail on Sunday, that would mean the number of NFL franchises to win titles since the inception of the salary cap remains at eight. That's still more than the seven championships won by different National Hockey League and Major League Baseball franchises over a similar span. The NBA is the most unbalanced of the four major sports, as only five teams have won titles in the past 11 years.
Some industry observers think that the Patriots run proves that the perception of balance in the NFL is often overstated; that teams don't have as much of a chance to win it all as their fans think they do. Aside from the cap, an unparalleled revenue sharing plan ensures no team is in such dire straits that it can't possibly compete. Plus, like all major sports leagues, there's a draft where the previous year's champion picks last and, oh by the way, there's a tougher schedule to boot.
"The salary cap leads fans to think that the league is more balanced than it really is," said Stephen Ross, a law professor at the University of Illinois. "When every team has nearly the same payroll, it's easy to think that every team has a chance. In baseball, Kansas City Royals fans would be hard-pressed to think that their team could win the American League when its payroll is $30 million and the New York Yankees are spending $180 million on its players."
Although Ross concedes that the vast difference in team winning percentages has closed in recent seasons, he says there are two reasons why the NFL isn't as competitive as many fans might think. Non-guaranteed contracts allow for teams to dump salaries relatively quickly, which enables good teams to rebuild with potentially little long-term penalty. Ross also contends that, although teams might be doling out the same amount of money to the players on their rosters, there is not a direct correlation between pay and performance.
The Patriots certainly don't have the most expensive payroll in the league and their Super Bowl opponents, the Philadelphia Eagles, have signed 19 of their 22 starters through next season and are still more than $17 million under the cap. Ross contrasts data like this with Serie A, the top professional soccer league in Italy, where, over the past five years, only one team outside the top quartile in league payroll has made it to the playoffs.
Although Ross thinks what the Patriots are doing is similar to the run made by the Dallas Cowboys, who won three times in four seasons from 1992-95, others say that the Patriots are simply beating the system, which is supposed to crown a more diverse group of champions.
"Because of the salary cap, other things become more important and the Patriots are good at capitalizing on those other things," said James Lavin, author of "Management Secrets of the New England Patriots."
Lavin reasons that Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a heralded defensive mastermind, dramatically improves the team's chances of winning, as does those in the Patriots front office, who seem to have a knack for recognizing talent. Belichick and the team's vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli plucked quarterback Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, and have consistently received exceptional results from players that other scouts might have considered sub-par. In 2001, they were willing to pay top dollar for lesser-known players like Mike Vrabel and David Patten. When Ty Law and Tyrone Poole went down this year, the Patriots had Randall Gay, who went undrafted in the 2004 draft, adequately filling in and picked up Hank Poteat, who was signed for the playoff run straight out of the classes he was attending at the University of Pittsburgh.
"Terrell Owens and Randy Moss are considered to be very talented players," Lavin says. "But the Patriots wouldn't necessarily want those guys because talent to them is players that help them win games, not necessarily those players that have most high-profile names."
Having a chance to win over and over again has even allowed the Patriots to have some flexibility with the cap -- wide receiver Troy Brown, linebacker Tedy Bruschi and offensive tackle Matt Light took hometown discounts to stay with the team instead of going elsewhere.
"What we have is a business plan that we always believed would work well," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said recently. "If you believe in what you do, if you have a genuine confidence that you have the best idea how to get something done, then you should have little problem implementing those ideas. Then, if you're fortunate, you get to look pretty smart."
No matter what the reason for the Patriots dominance in a league that prides itself on socialism, don't expect the appearance of a dynasty to lead to any type of fan erosion.
"In the dominant days of the Yankees in the 1920s (when the team played in six World Series in eight years), fewer fans attended games towards the end of their run because it got boring," said Dan Rascher, director of University of San Francisco's sports management program. "But the NFL is fortunate in that there seems to be an excess demand for the product and heavy revenue sharing keeps from teams that don't make it on the field from not being able to compete."
Ross said he believes that an NFL dynasty will only hurt the league if the Patriots continue to win and they play the same teams in the playoffs year after year.
"Many people thought the Chicago Bulls dynasty was going to be boring," Ross said. "But as long as the opponents are different -- the Bulls faced five different opponents in their six-championship run throughout the '90s -- it works. Boxing lost its popularity in part because the same boxers were fighting each other for the titles over and over again."
Aside from the harder schedule and the reverse order draft, there are some natural hindrances that the Patriots will have to contend with if they want to continue to win. When players are part of successful teams, their value increases and the team can't afford to keep them all.
If the Patriots continue to be great at finding and replacing, maybe the league will have to come up with a new way to ensure that others can win.
Said Ross: "No one has ever talked about putting a salary cap on front office talent."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com.
The Patriots recent run dispels the belief that every team has a chance to win in the NFL.