Parity: Mission Accomplished
February 4, 2009
Change is inevitable. Change is a process. Change is one of the founding principles of the universe – and of free agency. Through the enchanted combination of free enterprise, capitalism and (paradoxically) the labor movement the players achieved the right to work for the highest bidder. Through the magic of collective bargaining and NFL television contracts the owners agreed to the salary cap and revenue sharing. This is why football doesn’t have the Yankees. And it’s also why football does have the Packers: a team owned not by a food chain or a gazillionaire, but by the very small city of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Manipulation of the salary cap is the game behind the game. It is a complex capitalistic chess match where the American need for instant gratification sometimes gives way to plans laid with an almost Eastern philosophical patience. Moves made this year have direct consequences throughout years to come. The three current examples of the way – and the way not – to play this game are the Patriots, the Redskins and the 49ers.
San Francisco was the first to win under the salary cap. That initial year they assembled a remarkable set of players that included such diverse talents as Steve Young and Deion Sanders through ingenious contract construction. It was a great plan for a first season, but they clung to it far too long. The 49ers were forced to pay out millions to players who were no longer on their roster, hobbling their efforts to maintain a high-quality team and leading directly to the past decade of mediocrity.
The Redskins are another cautionary tale. As soon as the Cooke family left, Daniel Synder decided to turn himself into the NFL’s very own Steinbrenner. But, due to the cap, he could only secure a disparate bunch of formerly great players on the downhill side of their careers. Then came a series of big-name coaches who couldn’t succeed without a cohesive unit of talent.
At the other end of the rainbow are the Patriots. We’ve all mouthed Belichick’s statement that he prefers a group of B+ level players to stars. But with the Patriots clearly the “kings of the mountain” in recent years, this phrase is beginning to acquire the wisdom of a proverb. He and Scott Pioli assembled a team of tremendous depth – with surprise talent on every unit. The most famous example of course is 6th round pick Tom Brady. The fact that Belichick also looks for personal character before star talent is a key to the team’s success. And they haven’t wasted money or cap room on too many aging stars or first-round busts.
This complex dance of money, talent, time and vision is the nature of the new NFL. With the exception of a few extremely well-run franchises, teams can have drastic changes of fortune within a single year: witness the 2008 Miami Dolphins, who used free agency along with the draft to shore up their lines and snap up field general Pennington when he suddenly found himself “at liberty”.
Then there are the New York Jets, who wagered heavily on star free agents to achieve their “win now” goals. Not only did they fall short down the stretch, they also have the single worst cap situation in the league going into 2009.
Analysts decry the fact that, while teams with double digit wins did not make the playoffs, the lowly 9-7 Cardinals did. Is this fair? Well, maybe it is. Pundits complained in pre-season that the Pittsburgh Steelers had by far the hardest schedule in the NFL – and they did. Talking heads picked on the lowly NFC West all fall, belittling the Cardinals’ division win as meaningless. And yet, when it came down to the championship game, the team with the hardest road to the Super Bowl was there and the team no one respected gave them the fight of their lives. Now that’s parity!
The point of parity is not to have all teams equal every year (despite the definition of the term). The point is to avoid a league filled with some teams that always win and some teams that always lose – season after season. In this, parity is by and large succeeding. The Bucs, the Ravens and the Rams have all won Super Bowls since the quest for parity began. The 49ers and Cowboys have not. But few teams now go endless years in the basement. Fans can hope that winning is just an off-season away. And hope is essential to sports. It is a close cousin to courage and heart. Parity is hope.
ProBowl February 8, 2009