GIVE ME PARITY OR... You can almost hear former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle paraphrasing Patrick Henry’s immortal line as Rozelle closed the deal on the AFL-NFL merger prior to the 1970 season. He must have shouted it from atop Olympus when he orchestrated the deal that distributed television revenue evenly among every last NFL franchise. And when free agency arrived -- albeit shrouded with a salary cap -- in 1993? Bliss . . . Rozelle’s dream a reality. Your local pro football team struggling? Don’t worry (be happy, said Rozelle). You’ve got next year, literally. Let’s review a few facts:
  • 15 of 32 NFL teams won no more than 9 games and no fewer and 7 in 2002. Is this parity realized or a morass of mediocrity?
  • There was a day (1998?) when a 12-4 record separated the Super Bowl contenders from the gridirion hoi polloi. Every now and then, a special team would storm through a season with only two or three losses. (Remember the 15-1 49ers of 1984? What about the ‘85 Bears, another champion with but one defeat?) This season, three teams managed 12 wins (Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, and Green Bay). One of them -- the Packers -- was whipped at “the frozen tundra” by a 9-win club that plays in a dome! What in the good name of Ray Nitschke is going on here?
  • The top seed in the AFC playoffs is the Oakland Raiders, a team that fields two of the three receivers in NFL history to grab 1,000 passes, not to mention the 2002 MVP in quarterback Rich Gannon. Must be a 14-2 dynamo, right? At least 13-3. Oakland lost five games.
  • The last three NFL champions failed to qualify for the playoffs this season. For some perspective, imagine the Stanley Cup playoffs opening in April without the Red Wings, Avalanche, and Devils. Or picture October baseball without the Angels, Diamondbacks, and Yankees. “Wait till next year” isn’t so much a cry of optimism for the NFL’s misbegotten, but a warning of doom for the kings of the mountain. I’ve always preferred pro football to the college game. I like the familiarity of the stars, the intradivisional rivalries, the relatively balanced schedule from one team to the next. And you know what? I liked the butt-kicking dynasties, and their foils. Remember the contempt Pittsburgh and Dallas held for one another in the Seventies, the Steelers always a stride ahead of “America’s Team”? Remember -- way back -- in the Eighties, when the Giants of Parcells, the Redskins of Gibbs, and the Bears of Ditka would knock snot bubbles out of one another every January? And how about those 49er Cowboy wars in the Nineties. With games like these, you felt like you had an annual Ali Frazier on the docket. Sorry, but this week’s conference championships -- Raiders/Titans in the AFC, Eagles/Buccaneers in the NFC -- just don’t measure up. I suppose it’s a good thing that the “expansion” Cleveland Browns made the playoffs in only their fourth season back from the dead. But how are they, with a record of 9-7, any more deserving of a postseason slot than the Dolphins, Broncos, Saints, or defending champion Patriots, each of whom finished 9-7 themselves? The NFL is watered down, folks. With eight divisions now, fully 25 percent of the league can call itself a division champion. (With a three-way tie in the AFC East, 10 teams finished 2002 in first place. And two of them missed the playoffs!) The modern economics of the game -- Rozelle economics -- have made the NFL the envy of the NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball. It’s a money-making goliath, no question. But for us fans? Sure, the 2001 Patriots were a made-for-Hollywood feel-good story. But what about the 2000 champs, the Baltimore Ravens? (Can you name five members of that team? There’s Ray Lewis, then . . . . ) The team was absolutely eviscerated by salary cap limitations. Back to earth, boys . . . someone else’s turn with the Lombardi Trophy. The NFL has reached a point where last year’s Super Bowl winner may be vivid in the minds of fans far and wide. But ten years from now, twenty? (Ray who??) Dynasties and dodo birds . . . one of a kind. THIS WEEK’S PICKS: Titans 30, Raiders 24 Eagles 9, Buccaneers 3

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