The NBA celebrates super teams like the Golden State Warriors or, at least according to the media, whatever team Lebron James happens to play for. It’s all an arms race to assemble a crew of stars and try to take down the top dogs, and their draft lottery seems to consistently find ways to screw over the worst-off teams.
Major league baseball isn’t quite as dominated by a small group of super teams, but that’s not to say that there isn’t an inherent heirarchy in MLB’s design. Big market teams often have more to offer the top free agents than small market teams can muster, and so certain groups of teams become all but locked into contention (or at least competitiveness) or helpless mediocrity.
The NFL, though? Well, actually it’s not too different when judged by outcome rather than intention of design. But the differences in the intention of design are important. Where the NBA maintains a draft system that offers little to no advantage to its worst teams, the NFL makes sure that those teams get the earliest possible shot at players in every round. Unless, of course, the team screws that up for themselves via trades.
And both the NBA and MLB operate without true salary caps. Sure, there are “luxury taxes” imposed on teams for spending beyond a certain amount. But it takes a while for those additional fees to become prohibitive, and teams regularly accept them as the price of doing business. Or at least the richer/larger market franchises do, while their more cash strapped competitors operate more leanly and suffer for it on the field of play.
But the NFL maintains a hard salary cap, albeit one that has risen rapidly for the past several years. No team may spend more than any other, with the usually rather limited exception of rolling extra cap from the previous year over. However, that’s an advantage available to any team, if only they manage their cap wisely enough.
Most importantly, it’s not limited to big market or cash heavy franchises.
All of this feeds directly into one of the NFL’s goals during recent decades: parity. The NFL wants to create as level a playing field as it can for all of its teams. Why? It’s simple enough: profit. More people will watch more games if the games, on average, are more entertaining. How do you get entertaining games, especially if you don’t want to adopt some exciting offensive concepts from the college game? The most obvious way is to at least field competitive games.
Competitive games equals more people watching. More people watching equals more advertising revenue. More ad revenue means more profit, for the league, teams, and players alike.
One can certainly see the appeal. At least half the games on any given weekend are hard to watch, due to either or both of the teams being subpar. I for one wouldn’t mind having more entertaining games on the weekly slate.
Alas. The NFL is freaking horrible at actually achieving this goal.
I looked into Super Bowl history, and it’s a bit surprising just how lopsided things are:
4 teams out of 32 have never been to a Super Bowl. That 12.5% of the NFL includes the Detriot Lions, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Houston Texans. The Jaguars and Texans, of course, are expansion teams and haven’t had as many chances as other franchises. But the Browns and Lions both predate the NFL merger and hold 4 pre-Super Bowl NFL championships each, and 16 pre-Super Bowl NFL championship appearances total. They just haven’t been successful for the last 50 or 60 years.
9 teams out of 32 have been to at least one Super Bowl, but have never won one. That 28.1% of the NFL includes the Buffalo Bills, Minnesota Vikings, Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Chargers, and Tennessee Titans. They hold 19 Super Bowl appearances between them, and 19 unique flavors of Super Bowl heartbreak.
If you’re counting, that’s 13 out of 32 NFL teams, or 40.6% of the league, that still have no Lombardi trophy gracing their team headquarters after 51 opportunities. Cumulatively, that’s 663 wasted seasons.
But 19 teams do have Super Bowl championships, so it can’t be all that bad, can it?
Yeah. About that...
In addition to the 13 teams mentioned above, 4 others are enduring Super Bowl droughts that are at least old enough to drink. Two teams carry the distinction of having missed the big dance since before the NFL merger: the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs made their last Super Bowl appearances in Super Bowls III and IV. The other two, the Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins, haven’t made it to the NFL’s final game since the 1984 and 1991 seasons respectively.
That’s over half of the NFL, 53.1% of the league’s teams, who are enduring a significant lack of success at the NFL’s highest level.
If any additional proof of the lack of real parity in the NFL is needed, you need only look at the recent representatives each conference has fielded in the Super Bowl:
With the sole exception of Joe Flacco’s 2012 run with the Ravens, the AFC has not been represented by a team led by a QB other than Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, or Ben Roethlisberger since Super Bowl XXXVII after the 2002 season. The Raiders represented the AFC in that contest, on the heels of Brady’s first Super Bowl with the Patriots after the 2001 season. Those three quarterbacks, and their four franchises, have utterly dominated the AFC since the beginning of the 21st century.
The NFC has been a bit more fragmented, and may continue to be with the wealth of QB talent building in that conference, but it’s still dominated by premier quarterbacks. The last two NFC teams to reach the Super Bowl were led by the last two Super Bowl MVPs. Prior to that, the NFC fielded teams led by Russell Wilson, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, or Kurt Warner almost every year going back to the 2006 season.
There’s an obvious conclusion to be drawn from that: with the increasingly pass-heavy direction of the NFL is and has been going, quarterbacks are the trump card that blows parity itty, bitty pieces. If you’ve got a high end guy under center, you’ll contend or at least compete. If you don’t, you’ll find it nearly impossible to get one of those two invites to the big dance.
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