I watched the New Orleans-New England game on "Monday Night Football" with the hazy notion of rooting for the Patriots, just because it would be cool for the Colts to be the only undefeated team left. But it turns out that rooting for New England is just about impossible if you don't actually live there, and the Saints aren't just good the way the Colts are good. They are scary good, and it would have been almost sacrilegous not to cheer on such skill.
USA Today had an interesting cover story last week about the limits of the NFL's parity efforts. By punishing success and rewarding failure with such things as draft picks and salary caps, the league hopes to make teams more or less equal, "to prevent long runs of ineptitude and make it difficult to sustain a prolonged period of success." The games will be more exciting -- any given team can theoretically win on any given Sunday -- and more fans will be created.
And the theory has worked up to a point, with formerly bottom-of-the-barrel teams (like the Saints, in fact), rising up to be contenders. But it only goes so far. Despite the best efforts of parity, three teams have dominated the decade: the Colts, the Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers. On the flip side are four perennial losers that continue to struggle despite the NFL's best efforts to lift them up: the Buffalo Bills, the Cleveland Browns, the Detroit Lions and the Oakland Raiders.
So why, despite parity, is there a "widening gulf in terms of continued success and continued lack of success"?
Bad teams are nothing new in the NFL, but the endurance of such sustained dominance and ineptitude is, reflecting what many analysts say is a growing gap between well-run teams and those that are managed poorly.
[. . .]
Successful leaders, such as Colts president Bill Polian and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, backed by patient owners, are just as important to teams as Pro Bowl players, if not more. They flood their organizations with talent — players, coaches and scouts — that collectively buys into a broad vision. Their frameworks cultivate winning, not merely talented players.
[. . .]
The unsuccessful teams might have talented players, but they often lack the support system around them or the patience to allow one to develop.
"I think one of the biggest reasons why teams aren't getting better is instability," says former Bills coach and general manager Marv Levy, who coached the team to four consecutive AFC titles from 1990 to 1993. "It's always, 'Let's change, let's change.'
All parity does is give teams a more or less equal shot at the most talented players, in other words, but there still have to be competent people who know how to go after the right players and know what to do with them once they are acquired. No matter how much you handicap competent people, they will still find a way to succeed. And no matter how much you help the inept, they will still find a way to screw up.
Be careful about making up some metaphor here about real life and all those well-meaning attempts to "level the playing field." This is only football we're talking about here, after all.