NFL

Has the NFL’s Penchant for Parity Fallen by the Wayside?

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The NFL prides itself on parity. From the salary cap to the draft order to the assignment of compensatory picks, everything is done to level the playing field and give each franchise an equal opportunity at success.

The formula has been mostly successful. In the last seven seasons, seven different franchises have won the Super Bowl. That stat has been misleading, though, because recently the league’s penchant for parity has fallen by the wayside.

Let’s start with a look at the AFC. In 2013, the conference’s six playoff teams were the Patriots, Bengals, Colts, Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers. The Steelers and Ravens missed the cut by a single game. One year later, the Patriots, Bengals, Colts and Broncos were back in the tournament. The other four teams swapped places, with the Steelers and Ravens making the cut and the Chiefs and Chargers missing out by a single game.

Long story short: the list of contenders and pretenders in the AFC is pretty cut and dry.

There isn’t much more parity in the NFC. The Packers, Panthers and Seahawks have each won their divisions two years in a row. Only the NFC East changed hands in 2014, but even that division has been fairly consistent with the Cowboys and Eagles finishing in the top two spots each of the last couple seasons.

With so many teams winning consistently, an unfortunate group of consistent losers has emerged. A quarter of the league’s teams have not been to the playoffs in any of the last six seasons. That list of playoff droughts includes the Bills (15 years), Raiders (12), Browns (12), Rams (10), Jaguars (seven), Buccaneers (seven), Titans (six) and Dolphins (six).

At least the longest drought on that list is about the be quenched, if you believe boisterous Bills head coach Rex Ryan.

“I think we’ll be in [the playoffs] this year,” Ryan told ESPN.com last week. “So we’ll see.”

No matter what happens with the Bills, several of those perennial losers are poised for another tough season in 2015. Only the Raiders and Dolphins will begin the year with the same quarterback who started in Week 1 last season. Because of that, those two teams are closer to getting back into the playoffs than anyone else on the “list of losers.”

The Dolphins are so confident they are about to turn the corner that they signed QB Ryan Tannehill to a new six-year, $95 million deal earlier this offseason. Amazingly, that was only the second biggest contract the Dolphins handed out this offseason, behind the six-year, $114 million deal given to DT Ndamukong Suh.

“I want to be a cornerstone of this franchise and do my part on and off the field,” said Suh after inking the richest contract ever given to a non-quarterback.

Those are desperate numbers. And “desperate” is the perfect word to describe every team that has a playoff drought of six or more years. Every seat in those buildings is hot, from the owner’s box to the nosebleeds.

The NFL’s sudden lack of parity comes at an odd time, too, with the NBA making inroads with its newfound parity. This is currently on display in the NBA Finals, where the Cavaliers recently won their first Finals game in franchise history over a Warriors team that is back on the Big Stage for the first time since 1975.

Several other new teams crashed the NBA’s playoff party this year, including the Pelicans and Bucks. Other franchises are now enjoying sustained success after years and years of losing, such as the Clippers, Grizzlies, Wizards, Raptors and Blazers.

That sudden parity has been a breath of fresh air in the NBA, where prior to this season the Spurs, Heat and Lakers combined to win 13 of the last 16 championships.

The NFL certainly has its dominant franchises, too. The Steelers, Cowboys, 49ers, Patriots, Packers and Giants have combined to win 28 out of a possible 49 Super Bowls. But most of those franchises did the bulk of their damage before the salary cap era. The one exception is the Patriots, whose wins are definitely NOT the product of rampant cheating and a complete disregard for all rules and regulations (happy now, Pats fans?).

But parity had been the norm ever since, so much so that it became a critical negotiating point during the last round of Collective Bargaining negotiations.

“There are systems that we have to make sure that we maintain,” said Commissioner Roger Goodell at the time. “When you come into a season, every fan thinks that their football team has a chance to win the Super Bowl and that’s what I believe the 32 clubs are working towards.”

That business model has worked well, but has no doubt fallen flat in the last couple seasons. It’s hard to sell fans on the idea all 32 clubs are working towards a Super Bowl when you have the Browns signing Josh McCown to be their starting quarterback and the 49ers firing one of the five winningest coaches in NFL history.

The truth is, the NFL can do anything and everything to level the playing field, but some teams just cannot get out of their own way. And while coaches can cut players and GMs can fire coaches, there is no option for the fans to fire owners. And asking Mark Davis to build a championship-caliber team is like asking Chip Kelly to run the wishbone.

That is not to say there will be no turnover in the NFL’s playoff field. It’s safe to assume at least four new teams will crack this season’s top-12, with the Chiefs, Dolphins, Rams and Vikings looking like the more likely candidates.

But does anyone think the Patriots, Colts, Packers or Seahawks will be at home come early January? Or does anyone see the Browns, Raiders, Bears or Buccaneers making a playoff run? We can add the Jaguars, Titans, Redskins and 49ers to that latter list, as well.

More than any time in recent memory, we know which teams will be good and which ones will stink months before training camps even open. So, enjoy the NBA Finals … it may be the most entertaining product of parity you’ll see the rest of the year.

Want to talk more about parity in today’s NFL? Join Michael Lombardo for his weekly NFL Chat on Friday at 2pm EST. But you don’t have to wait until then … you can ask your question now


About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.