The National Football League: Is it Parity or Parody?

In the now infamous diagram circulated on the internet by Reddit user Danchan22, NFL teams can be connected in circular fashion based on wins and losses.  With such results, it begs the question, who or what exactly is the NFL crowning as a champion each season?

On February 1, 2009, the Pittsburgh Steelers were getting ready to face a very unlikely opponent in the the Super Bowl, the Arizona Cardinals, arguably the worst professional sports franchise in American history.  With the Chicago/St.Louis/Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals, we’re talking about a franchise that already had amassed nearly seven hundred losses since its inception at the turn of the nineteenth century.  That the Cardinals had reached the Super Bowl that season was certainly shocking, not only because of the less than glorious history of the franchise, but because of how little the team had accomplished on the field during the 2008 campaign, a subject that I wrote about just before the Super Bowl.

That season, the Cardinals finished with nine wins against seven losses, somehow good enough to win the embarrassing NFC West.  But a closer look at the Cardinals playoff run revealed that six of their nine wins came against division foes that amassed a combined record of 13-35, that the Cardinals had beaten only two teams with winning records that season, and only one such team that qualified for the 2008-09 playoffs (and that team was an 11-5 Miami who was a train wreck the year before–more on this below).  Down the stretch, the Cardinals played three games against playoff caliber teams, the Vikings, Eagles, and Patriots (the Patriots finished 11-5 that year but missed the playoffs due to the level of their competition in the AFC), losing all three of these games by a combined score of 130-41.  Still, with two minutes and thirty-seven seconds left in the Super Bowl, the Arizona Cardinals lead the Pittsburgh Steelers by a count of 23-20.  How can this happen you ask?  The answer is masked in the NFL’s (dubbed “No Fun League” by some pundits and “Not For Long” by others) ridiculous scheduling scheme that makes a mockery of the term “champion” under the clever ruse of parity.

It’s time to pull the curtain back so we can get a glimpse of that grand old wizard.

Part of the answer as to how this could have happened had something to do with the Pittsburgh Steelers themselves.  While a stout defense, the NFL’s best that season in fact, the Steelers entered the playoffs with significant question marks on the offensive side of the ball.  That year, the Pittsburgh Steelers offense ranked #22 in total offense (out of 32 total teams), clearly below average statistically.  Anchored by perhaps the worst offensive line in the Steeler’s glorious playoff history, the Steelers run game was limited to the efforts of an undrafted running back named Willie Parker (who would be out of the game just two short seasons later).  The Steelers star receiver Hines Ward was hobbled and only caught a few balls during the game, leaving the offense with only tight end Heath Miller (48 catches for 514 yards on the season) and an unknown and untested rookie named Santonio Holmes, as reliable targets.  That this significantly below average and hobbled offense was good enough to represent the American Football Conference in the Super Bowl is part of this author’s point.  As the Steelers drove down the field for what would be a legendary game winning touchdown catch by a notorious pot head, camp fire tales of lore regarding the magnficient game winning drive tend to ignore the fact that it was orchestrated against the NFL’s 19th best defense (one that surrendered 26.6 points per game overall, but 34.2 ppg against teams with a .500 record or better).   Why exactly was the NFL’s 19th ranked defense on the field trying to stop its 22nd ranked offense just minutes before its once prized Lombardi trophy would be handed out to a team under the label of NFL champion?  Were these really the two best teams the NFL had to offer in the 2008-09 season?  And if what were watching is a couple of mediocre teams slugging it out, what exactly is just so damn “Super” about that kind of a “Bowl?”

And this particular instance is hardly alone in the legacy of the new NFL, where every season we are forced to digest a bogus rags to riches Cinderella story that is complete nonsense.  The reason the NFL sees the all too common worst to first scenarios play out seemingly each season is because of the crazy unbalanced schedule it implements to fraudulently propel mediocre teams into the playoffs and sometimes beyond.   A Newsweek article entitled “The Parity Puzzle” explains this phenomenon best:

[e]ach team plays two games, or 12.5 percent of its schedule, against different teams than its division rivals.  Given that six of the eight NFL divisions were decided by a game or less, that is hardly an insignificant difference. Especially when last year’s fourth-place teams play their two ” different” games against considerably weaker opponents.  And there are huge disparities between them.  The two divisions which featured the biggest 2008 turnarounds, the NFC South (40–24) and the AFC East (38–26) were not so coincidentally the two that drew both the NFC West (22–42) and the AFC West (23–41), the weakest divisions in the league.

And the Newsweek article pointed out something rather interesting regarding the eventual 2009-10 Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints, who to the unobservant NFL fan, appeared to be a Frankenstein-like creation.  On this subject, written before the 2009 season began, the author offers the following:

[t]hat bodes especially well for teams like the Washington Redskins and the New Orleans Saints, both of which finished with 8–8 records, but in last place in strong divisions.  Both will be rewarded this season when they play their two “different” games against a pair of true doormats, the Lions and the Rams, which were a combined 2–30 last year…The schedule suggests that Washington and New Orleans are best positioned to emerge as the sleeper team of the 2009 season.  Of course, Las Vegas never sleeps, which may explain why bookmakers haven’t cast either the Redskins or the Saints as genuine long shots.  Rather, Washington will kick off the season at similar odds to 2009 playoff teams like Atlanta and Miami while New Orleans is considered to have as good or possibly even a better chance to win Super Bowl XLIV as last year’s almost-champion Cardinals.

And of course, this is exactly what we saw, with the New Orleans Saints making a deep playoff run in 2009 which culminated in a Super Bowl victory over the Indianapolis Colts (and while the Cardinals did in fact make the playoffs, they were eventually eliminated by those Saints in the second round of the playoffs, vindicating those crazy odds makers in Las Vegas that saw the Saints and Cardinals as equally probable champions).

And these examples are not limited to one “underdog” winning a Lombardi trophy here or there, as often the soft OOD tilts the odds in favor of one team making the playoffs over another.  Remember those 11-5 Dolphins from 2008, the lone playoff team the Cardinals beat in their “magical” Super Bowl run in 2008?  The Dolphins were 1-15 the year before,  being outscored by their opponents by 170 points combined.  Their reward for this “effort” was a fourth place team’s schedule in 2008, which meant out of division games {OOD hereafter) against many of the also-rans in the NFL  to include Houston, Oakland, Kansas City, Denver, St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego and Baltimore, whose combined record that season was just 58-95 (a .379 winning percentage).  Just looking at the numbers, the only OOD game Miami played that year against a team with a winning record was a Baltimore team (11-5) that they lost to by two touchdowns.  Compare this with the three wins that the Dolphins earned against the laughingstock NFC West, whose “competitors” combined record was a not so sexy13-35, and it’s pretty easy to see that this “playoff” team’s record was inflated with wins over mediocre to terrible competition.  Compare this to the Dolphins OOD record in 2007 of 94-76 (for a .552 winning percentage), and it’s clear that the Dolphins miraculous turn around wasn’t just about the Tuna.

Now, an improvement from 1-15 to 11-5 does speak to the fact that the Dolphins were probably a better team overall in 2008, but it would be foolhardy to ignore the role that schedule disparity plays in the rapid improvement or decline in teams from one season to the next.  That “soft schedule” probably made the difference in the Dolphins making the playoffs in 2008-09 as the margin for making/missing the playoffs is typically no more than one game (and in fact, New England finished that season at 11-5 as well but missed the playoffs because of tie-breakers, meaning the margin of difference almost certainly was a result of the lesser competition played by the Dolphins out of the division that season).  Couple in the fact that you need only be better than 3 other “mediocre” teams in your division to claim a playoff spot (do you think the teams in the NFC West are having the same difficult journey as say a team in the AFC East or North this year, where some have suggested seven wins might be enough to win the West?), and consider that division winners are guaranteed at least one home playoff game regardless of record to further help the advancement of the truly mediocre, and it’s easy to see how the fraudulent concept of parity is masking the fact that some marginal teams are playing for what used to once be a special award.

While the casual fan may be shocked by Kansas City’s apparently miraculous turn around, their out of division opponents thus far have amassed a 43-62 combined record compared to an 85-80 mark in 2009.

What’s interesting about the diagram above is that it hints at the absence of both truly dominate and weak teams in the NFL.  If you haven’t figure it out, viewing it clockwise, the team that comes first beat the team next to them who, in turn, beat the team next to them.  It’s not as confusing as it sounds.  Look at the Steelers logo at the top.  The Steelers beat the Falcons 15-9.  The Falcons beat the Bucs 27-21.  The Bucs beat the Browns 17-14.  And so on and so forth.  And lest you think this is a bizarre result in 2010, I found a link of a fan who drew up a similar diagram for the 2009 season.  All of this suggests that with the exception of one or two outliers each season, which could be attributed to statistical anomalies like static turnover ratios and/or fluke injuries, the vast majority of NFL teams naturally fall within a game or two of the .500 mark with the outlier in any given season often the team taking advantage of the soft OOD schedule handed to them as a result of underachieving the season before (which in a sense is some sort of justice since the finish the year before was probably undervalued to some degree because of a tougher schedule based on the performance the year before that).  All of this makes the circular image above, the same arrangement used in the children’s game of musical chairs, truly a fitting diagram.

So when you see a Minnesota Vikings team that was 12-4 in 2009 (with an OOD wp% against of .456) has slipped to 5-8 in 2010 (with an OOD wp% against of .538) or that a team like Kansas City who finished 4-12 in 2009 (with an OOD wp% against of.515) has improved to 8-5 (with an OOD wp% against of .410 thus far), the shrewd fan realizes that what the NFL calls parity is but merely a parody.

Categories: All things Sports, National Football League

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5 replies

  1. Michael,

    Another great article! While many are duped into thinking the NFL playoff system is ‘perfect’ you clearly decipher the machinations the NFL owner have implemented to ensure there are no permanent doormats.

    The question is, if this system is as arbitrary as you have proven, why are so many fans desperate to implement it on the college level?

    I think this is one of those areas where fans allow themselves into thinking that athletics is anything more than a form of entertainment.

    • Van,

      Van, I have had long conversations with fans about this very topic. Fans believe sports should be a game, and as such, the playing field should be level (in reality, it’s an entertainment business, and like all businesses, some will be run well, and some won’t). This, along with the familiarity argument (i.e. all sports use a post season tournament, so fans are just used to it), explain why fans want the playoff format utilized in CFB. Whether one prefers a model of parity or one that allows for dominate teams I guess is a matter of personal preference (probably has a lot to do with the quality of the teams that you root for, and the ones that I root for have been good more often then not). Personally, I loved it when a clearly inferior Steeler team attempted to beat a Cowboy dynasty in 1995, even when I thought it a long shot, but I realize I’m probably in the minority on this point. I wrote this mostly because I think the average fan may not appreciate one of the consequences of a system that bends over backwards to prop up bad franchises–a post season tournament of mostly mediocre teams where the healthiest and/or one with the best quarterback often prevails instead of the best team.

      Thank you for the post, I appreciate the feedback.

      • Exactly! The situation is exacerbated in hockey, where if you’ve got a goalie standing on his head during the post-season, you can make a deep run towards to Stanley Cup.


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