The vanishing mythology of parity in the NFL

by Gary Shelton on September 21, 2016 · 0 comments

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Wednesday, 4 a.m.

Back in the early days of optimism – last week, if you can remember that long ago – there were a few reasons you thought the Bucs might break through to be a playoff team this year.

They had a quarterback. The defense was better. The coach made more sense. They had a promising free agency haul. They had an encouraging draft. And did we mention the quarterback?

Then, there was always the mythology that comes with NFL, the worst-to-first league, where yesterday's 4-12 team can become

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tomorrow's 12-4 team. Parity, remember? On any given Sunday, remember?

The thing is, they don't give those Sundays away as often as  they used to.

In the NFL, parity is a harder thing to achieve these days. Perhaps it's because quarterbacks are so influential that, if a team gets one, it's going to make the playoffs most seasons. Perhaps it's because of star coaches who stay while others check in on their way to the unemployment line. Perhaps it is because some of the bad teams – Cleveland? – seem fiercely determined to remain that way.

But, more than ever, if you were bad last year, the odds are, you're going to be bad this year. And if you were good, well, ditto.

Let's say that five seasons is a good measuring stick for the identity of today's football teams. Ten years is too long. Two years isn't long enough.

Over the last five years, ten teams – almost a third of the league – haven't made the playoffs at all. Not even for a one-and-done cameo. On the other hand, four teams have made it every year.

That's almost half of the NFL that is running in place. Consider New England. For all of their strengths, the Patriots are playing in a division where no one else has made the playoffs for at least five years. Not the Dolphins, not the Jets, and especially not the Bills. Shoot, no wonder New England is the league's ranking dynasty. They've got the best coach, the best quarterback and, year-in and year-out, the best schedule.

Want more? Five teams have made the playoffs once in the last five years. Only once. One team, Seattle, has missed it only once. That's 20 teams – roughly two-thirds – who pretty much know if they're going to be in or out when the season begins. The NFL has turned into Groundhog Day. Every morning starts with “I Got You, Babe” on the radio.

Of the 60 playoff berths over the last five years, 15 teams have gained 47. Think about that, over the last five seasons, the other 17 teams have fought over 13 playoff slots. Total.

In other words, it's harder than ever to go from a bad team to a good one, which of course, the Bucs are trying to do.

How do you accomplish it? The easiest way is to dominate your division. A team that can win five games (of six) is halfway there. But if you only win three, well, that means that a 10 win season is uphill. You accomplish it when other teams – especially the quarterbacks – get too old to compete anymore. (Carolina has followed the blueprint well; they're one of the few teams that has had a breakthrough that lasted in recent seasons).

For the Bucs, then, they need gradual, incremental improvement. They need their quarterback to be a star. Another star or three at key positions (wide reciever, left tackle, right defensive end, cornerback) would help. They need their defense to hold up its end. They need to find a coach – and let's hope it's Dirk Koetter – who earns the trust of his ownership.

Eventually, let's hope this team can be one of the teams that matters.

And not just to you.

5

New England Patriots

Cincinnati Bengals

Denver Broncos

Green Bay Packers

Seattle Seahawks

3

Baltimore Ravens

Pittsburgh Steelers

Houston Texans

Indianapolis Colts

Carolina Panthers

San Francisco 49ers

Minnesota Vikings

New Orleans Saints

Atlanta Falcons

Arizona Cardinals

Kansas City Chiefs

Washintgon Redskins

San Diego Chargers

New York Giants

Philadelphia Eagles

Dallas Cowboys

Detroit Lions

New York Jets

Miami Dolphins

Buffalo Bills

Cleveland Browns

Tennessee Titans

Jacksonville Jaguars

Oakland Raiders

Chicago Bears

Tampa Bay Bucs

L.A. Rams

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