Parity, the rally-cry of pro football fanatics, will be the catalyst that will ultimately signal the end of the NFL’s reign atop the American sports world.
The league has become devoid of personality in part because of its strict anti-celebratory rules, which led to it being dubbed the No Fun League but also in large part because of the salary cap the league put in place in the mid-1990s to create parity atop the standings.
The NFL introduced the salary cap to avoid dynasties from taking over the sport, like in baseball, where the New York Yankees have won more titles than the next three most prolific championship teams in the sport’s history. However, the salary cap’s most notable effect is evident in teams’ inability to string together consecutive playoff seasons.
Since 2000, only one team, the Philadelphia Eagles, has made the playoffs all four years. By the same token, just seven of the 32 NFL teams have not made the playoffs at least once during the same span, and only two — the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Arizona Cardinals — have failed to finish at or above .500 at least once.
Teams are becoming so tightly packed that no team really separates itself from the rest of the league. Being a Super Bowl champion, a playoff qualifier or even a last-place team means almost nothing because, given four or five years, a team is almost assured to experience both of these highs and lows. Being a fan loses its mystique when teams become nothing but small pieces in a large cycle. The NFL is running the risk that fans will eventually realize that supporting a team is becoming futile.
In the 1970s, teams such as the Steel Curtain, Purple People Eaters and the Doomsday Defense, became the stuff of legend. Today, teams don’t even stay together long enough to earn nicknames anymore, let alone an identity as the constraint of the salary cap frequently forces teams to let star players go.
This year’s Super Bowl is a prime example of what parity produces: a title game with almost no star players, while Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Ricky Williams will, like us, be watching from home. The Panthers and Patriots both seem to have hit on the winning formula — both teams have a long list of good players, but very few outstanding players. This recipe has sent the Patriots to two Super Bowls in three years, but eventually, probably in the next year or two, the team will lose some key players to free agency and have to rebuild.
Conversely, when a team decides to build around a star player, such as the Bears with linebacker Brian Urlacher, they find themselves unable to surround him with other good players while remaining within the salary cap. As a result of their investment, the Bears must cross their fingers and depend on unproven draft picks to produce a winning team.
Super Bowl XXXVIII presents two teams that neutral fans may find difficult to care about, because nothing, not talent, attitude or prestige, distinguishes them from the rest of the league.
The league needs to give teams more freedom in re-signing veteran players. While other sports suffer when teams are capable of out-bidding opponents for free agents to essentially buy championships, the NFL is hurt in the opposite manner. Teams are forced into inconsistency, and the end result is a curve in which teams can never stray too far above or below average.
There is no such thing as an upset in the NFL anymore, as any team winning any week comes as little surprise. In baseball, the Yankees losing a postseason series is often a monumental event. The underdog Panthers defeating the red-hot Eagles at home in the playoffs is just another weekend in the NFL, though, and it takes a lot of the excitement and tension out of most games.
Maybe raising the salary cap would solve the problem, but that might just raise player salaries, which would bring the risk of further alienating players from fans. If the salary cap is eliminated all together, then owners willing to spend the most money have an advantage, and it wouldn’t address the issue.
One solution might be to allow teams a credit against the salary cap when resigning veteran players. A four-year veteran, for example, could have only three-quarters of his contract count towards his team’s cap limit. The league should do this to promote loyalty to a team by players and to better reward coaches who have a knack for picking the best draftees, but are subsequently forced by the salary cap to offload the stars they have discovered. This would be better for fans, who want to see familiar faces on the rosters they support, and for the league, which has found a way to make a unpredictable act grow tired.