Parity has been a buzzword in NFL circles for about a decade, at least since the dawn of the salary-cap era in 1994. Each time there's a tight game or a bottleneck of teams fighting for playoff spots late in the season the "pundits" reach for their flask of clichés and take a big swig of 100-proof parity.
But parity this year is nothing more than an intoxicating elixir that clouds judgment and historical perspective and inspires irrational behavior. In the interest of maintaining law and order in Pigskin County, we turned to a portly, donut-munching constable called the Cold, Hard Football Facts to beat down the "pundits'" door, confiscate their moonshine and inform them that the parity's over. Here's our search warrant.
Dominant teams are back with a vengeance. After a brief period in which each year's Super Bowl champion seemed a surprise, the league has settled into a more historically rational pattern in which a handful of teams can be counted on to compete for a title each season.
The Eagles (12-1) have been in three straight conference title games and are an overwhelming favorite to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XXXIX. Sure, the Steelers (12-1) were 6-10 in 2003. But they have the second most wins in the salary-cap era (110) and are poised to appear in their fifth AFC title game since 1994. The Patriots (12-1) stand alone as the first budding dynasty of the 21st century. They've clinched a playoff spot for the sixth time in nine seasons and could become just the fourth team in NFL history to win three titles in four years, joining the Bears ( '40, '41, '43), Packers ('65, '66, '67) and Cowboys ('92, '93, '95).
You can also add the Colts and Packers to the list of local deputies breaking up the drunken barn dance of parity. The Colts (10-3) have clinched their fifth playoff appearance in six years and are on pace to set an NFL single-season scoring record. The Packers (8-5) lead the league with 116 wins in the salary-cap era, have not had a losing season since 1991, and are positioned to make their 10th playoff appearance in 12 years.
The return of dominant powers has been punctuated by a season in which, for the first time in NFL history, three teams are 12-1. Only three teams have gone 15-1 in the regular season since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. Three could turn that trick in 2004, handcuffing the idea that the league is defined by parity.
Games are less competitive this season. Since the AFL-NFL merger, there's been a gradual rise in the competitiveness of NFL games. In the 1970s, 40.8 percent of all NFL games were decided by seven points or less; in the 1980s, 45.7 percent; in the 1990s, 46.4 percent. The trend continued into the 21st century and peaked in 2001 (48.8 percent), 2002 (49.2 percent) and 2003 (48.4 percent). This phenomenon, more than anything, spawned the parity buzzword.
But that trend toward tighter ballgames has made a sudden reversal this season: just 42.8 percent of NFL games this year (89 of 208 through Week 14) have been decided by seven points or less. Only four times in the last 28 seasons (and not once since 1992, before the dawn of the salary-cap era) have a lower percentage of games been decided by seven points or less. Little more than one in five games (21.6 percent) this season have been decided by a field goal or less. That's the sixth lowest rate since 1978.
Despite the lockdown by the long arm of pigskin law, the "pundits" continue to pour stale stories about parity from a rusty old keg of gridiron ignorance. Apparently, it's easier than tapping into a fresh, frothy storyline. Part of the problem with the "pundits" is that their addiction to parity clouds their sense of historical perspective. They insist that the great teams of the past are better than the great teams of today, or that the crowd of clubs fighting for a playoff spot late in the season is a modern phenomenon. But here's the historical truth according to the Rosco P. Coltrane of the local pigskin constabulary, the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
This year's playoff logjam is not unusual. With three weeks left in the 2004 season, 23 of 32 teams (72 percent) have either clinched a playoff spot or still have a shot at postseason play. This number has been cited as an example of modern NFL parity. But it's completely normal by historical standards. In 1983 the league fielded just 28 teams, but 24 (86 percent) had clinched a postseason spot or still had a shot at one with three weeks to play. In 1995, 27 of 30 teams (90 percent) were in the playoffs or the playoff hunt with three weeks left. Back in 1981, 16 of 28 teams (57 percent) were still alive heading into the very last week of the season.
These historical numbers are more impressive when you consider that from 1978 to 1993 the NFL playoff format included just 10 teams. Today, 12 teams make the playoffs.
Yesterday's powers are stronger in memory than they were on the field. The misty lens of history causes sentimental "pundits" to exaggerate the greatness of past teams. Contemporary teams look flawed by comparison. Consider the 2004 Eagles, for example. They're on pace to go 15-1 and to score exactly 200 points more than they surrender (440-240). Their average game, in other words, is a resounding 27.5-15.0 victory. The Patriots are not that far behind. They're on pace to post a +183 differential (450-267) and they outscore the opposition by an average of 28.1-16.7. With two of the worst teams in football left on their schedule, New England could also reach the +200 mark.
Compare these contemporary teams with great teams of the past. Pittsburgh won four Super Bowls in the 1970s and the legendary Steel Curtain-era Steelers stand as one of the most revered, most feared and most talented franchises in NFL history. Yet only one of those championship teams, the 1975 Steelers (12-2), outscored their opposition by more than 200 points (373-162). The 1974 Steelers (10-3-1) captured the franchise's first Super Bowl after a season in which they were +116 (305-189) and their average game was a 21.8-13.5 victory.
Dallas has won five Super Bowls in its history. Not one of those championship teams scored 200 points more than it surrendered. The 1971 Cowboys (11-3) came closest. They were +184 (406-222) playing a 14-game schedule. The Cowboys of the Aikman-Smith-Irvin era fielded their strongest team in 1992. That club went 13-3, scored 166 points more than it allowed (409-243) and its average game was a 25.6-15.2 victory.
The Raiders won three titles from 1976 to 1983. Their most dominating year was 1976, when they went 13-1 and posted a scoring differential of +113 (350-237). That translates into an average score of just 25.0-16.9. The 1980 Raiders (11-5) registered the smallest point differential of any Super Bowl champion, +58 (364-306).
Joe Montana and the 1988 49ers won Super Bowl XXIII following a 10-6 season in which they outscored the opposition by a mere 75 points (369-294), or an average of just 23.1-18.4. The 1981 49ers (13-3) were only slightly more impressive. Their point differential was +107 (357-250), which means their average game was a 22.3-15.6 affair.
Only eight Super Bowl champions since the merger have marched through the regular season scoring 200 points more than they've surrendered. That historical parity could put Philadelphia or New England in the most elite company if either manages to win Super Bowl XXXIX.
It would also be bad news for the "pundits." It would mean it's time to pop a few Chasers and turn out the lights. The parity's over.