Parity gives every NFL team a shot, which makes each week a thrill
Somewhere Pete Rozelle is smiling. "On any given Sunday" parity's greatest champion famously said, "any team can beat another."
Rozelle's words have never rung truer. Teams that were doormats only last year—most notably the Bears, Browns and Chargers—are racing toward the postseason. "Horrors!" exclaim antiparity types. "Parity is another word for mediocrity." This argument heated up during a wild 1999 season that climaxed with a Super Bowl pitting two vagabond franchises, the St. Louis Rams and the Tennessee Titans. However, after the most thrilling Super Bowl in recent memory, was anyone waxing nostalgic about the good old days of blowouts by NFC dynasties?
While major league baseball and the NBA are perennially dominated by predictable story lines—Whom will the Yankees face in the Series? Can anyone stop Shaq?—the NFL offers something more refreshing: regular seasons that have meaning. Sunday afternoons are exciting for the same reasons that March Madness is irresistible: Just about every game in every city has an effect on the title hunt, and even in December nearly every team has a shot.
Is it so terrible that Clevelanders have someone other than Drew Carey to root for this year? A year ago at this time fans were joking about the pathetic Ravens, who hadn't scored a touchdown in 20 quarters. After 11 straight wins and an emphatic Super Bowl victory, though, the only debate concerning Baltimore was whether its astounding defense was the best the game had ever seen. Even in a league that embraces equality, there's plenty of room for greatness.
When no club stands above the rest, the whole league looks lousy
As a kid I was devoted to the Browns, but whatever nostalgic pleasure I might derive from their 4-3 record this season is tempered by the unease I feel when I look at the depth chart and see James Jackson and his sub-3.0 yards per carry at starting tailback. Cleveland, I'm afraid, simply isn't very good.
Not that lack of talent hinders NFL success. No team is very good these days. The salary cap, expansion and free agency have made it impossible for strong teams to stay together, and the talent pool is stretched thinner than a Matt Stover jersey on Tony Siragusa. Every sport has its dud squads, but as baseball's pennant races and postseason showed us, watching two fine teams go at it makes all the dull affairs worthwhile. Alas, the NFL has only two teams—the Rams and the Raiders—within sniffing distance of greatness.
Worst of all, parity kills excitement. Cleveland fans should have been doing cartwheels when the Browns beat the world champion Ravens in Week 6, but how excited can you get about doing something the lowly Bengals (who happen to be 4-3) had done four weeks earlier? There are no giants-least of all the Giants, the reigning NFC champs and owners of a 4-4 record—and, hence, no giant killers. The G-men aren't the only erstwhile super-team to embrace mediocrity. Throw out the Rams, and the participants in the past three Super Bowls are a combined 19-18 this year.
Those who argue that such balance is good will tell you that it gives the underdog a chance. However, there are no underdogs, only dogs, when everyone is the same.