The NFL strives for parity. For all teams to be roughly the same. It’s why bad teams get rewarded with the first choice of incoming collegiate talent. It’s why the wealthiest teams are not allowed to spend their money freely. And yet, parity has never really existed in the NFL. There has always been a defined basement and a very obvious elite group of teams. Those teams have moved around year-to-year, but there have been consistently excellent sides in the NFL which you could trust to be atop the mountain every year.
That is not true in 2017.
The rule used to be that if you had a great quarterback you were going to be an elite team for a long time. New England with Tom Brady, Indianapolis with Peyton Manning, Green Bay with Brett Favre and then Aaron Rodgers. These were your perennial contenders for the Super Bowl. Since the start of the 2000 season, only six quarterbacks have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl. Brady (7), Manning (4), Ben Roethlisberger (3), Rich Gannon (1), Joe Flacco (1), Trent Dilfer (1).
While the story is not the same in the NFC, with 14 different quarterbacks making it, there has been a group of teams in recent years that you could rely on to contend. Green Bay and Seattle have gone a combined 114-55-2 since 2012, which is the equivalent of 10.7 wins a year. That is eerily similar to the peak of the Brady-Manning rivalry.
This season though, things are far, far more even at the top. We still have our basement teams (Hi Cleveland!) but there are no teams that scream excellence through six weeks. In 2015 we had five undefeated teams heading into Week 7. This year we have none. In 2017 there are 14 teams with three wins right now. That figure was nine last season, and five in 2015.
Is this just a cyclical thing? Or is there a reason teams are being pulled into the mire of the middle pack?
JJ Watt, Odell Beckham, Aaron Rodgers… Big names, wildly impressive players, and all out for the year. Those players alone are not responsible for their team’s successes or failures, well maybe Rodgers is, but there are 197 players currently listed on IR, and that doesn’t count those still on the PUP list from preseason injuries or simply listed as out for Week 7. That is six players per team out for the year.
Injuries are nothing new to the NFL, but with the concussion protocol now enforcing better protection against head injuries that used to be of the “walk it off” variety, NFL rosters are in continuous flux, making consistency even week-to-week difficult to achieve.
The NFL is unique with it’s hard salary cap. The idea being to prevent rich teams simply spending their way to victory, and to that extent it works. The issue comes in that not every team is as good at handling their sums.
In recent years, especially since the 2011 CBA came into effect, there has been a huge drift away from reliable veterans and a middle class of salaries toward a few very well paid players and a lot of very cheap rookies.
The rookie wage structure that the CBA brought in has made missing on first rounders inexpensive on your cap. The JaMarcus Russell bust cost Oakland on the cap for years. Jake Long came in as a #1 pick and was very good, but he was the highest-paid tackle before he even played a down.
The adjustment has freed up money that was going to rookies to be spread out across the rest of the rosters. Except, that money is starting to collect at the top.
We have seen contract records smashed year after year. Derek Carr and Matthew Stafford had record contracts handed to them this year. The Redskins were willing to give Kirk Cousins a $24 million franchise tag this year.
This concentration of money in the quarterback position leaves a lot of instability within the rest of the roster. Let’s just take the Baltimore Ravens as an example. Their six-year, $120.6 million deal with quarterback Joe Flacco handcuffed them and forced to say goodbye to players like Kelechi Osemele, Haloti Ngata, Pernell McPhee, and Elvis Dumervil, resulting in inconsistency and overall worsening play.
There are some teams that can get around it, but they have to get the highest of the highest level of performance from their quarterbacks. The Packers get brilliant performances from Rodgers, but even with the brilliance of Drew Brees, the Saints can’t put together a strong team around him while they put 11.4% of their cap on one man.
Is parity good?
If you’re a fan of the Seahawks or Patriots, you’re probably not a fan of the current NFL climate. Gone are the simple wins and the dominating performances, instead there is uncommon instability with two sides who have featured in four of the last six Super Bowls. Eagles fans, conversely, are loving their time in the spotlight.
However, there is something to be said for exceptionalism. The NBA has never been hotter, and part of the reason is the Cavs and Warriors rivalry. What rivalry is there in the NFL right now between two great teams? You can argue that Green Bay and Dallas have a rivalry going, but their inconsistencies make it hard to really get behind.
Gone is Brady-Manning, gone is the Harbaugh 49ers vs Carroll’s Seahawks and the Steelers-Ravens rivalry. There are no marquee matchups that really draw the eye anymore, and without a clash of two undefeated sides deep into the season there is nothing you can really market.
The Cavs and Warriors “super teams” have their own issues, but they are at least extremely marketable and draw interest from people who wouldn’t normally care about the NBA.
With such parity this season the NFL has lost that feeling of intense competition, of two greats driving each other to be better. Without Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier boxing suffered, without Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost so did Formula 1. The NFL does not want to be in the same situation of losing the interest of fans.
They had better hope that some teams take this season by the scruff of the neck and prove that there is still an elite class in the NFL.
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