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A Level Playing Field

This season the National Football League has shown us that "parity" isn't a dirty word.

11:00 PM, Dec 30, 2002 • By MAX BOOT
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IN THE LARGER WORLD, despite the expectations of numerous political scientists and pundits, unipolarity still rules. America stands head and shoulders above all other nations, with no real competitor in sight, not Russia or China or Japan or Europe. In the world of professional football, by contrast, despite the expectations of numerous sports commentators and pundits, multipolarity is the order of the day.

The Rams dynasty, widely prophesied ever since their Super Bowl win after the 1999 season, has crumbled faster than the House of Habsburg. The St. Louis squad actually wound up with a losing record this year, and by the grim end the only surprise was that it won as many as seven games. No other potentate has emerged to lord it over the NFL's peons. Instead we have seen the emergence of a vast middle class--a plethora of competitive teams clustered around the .500 mark. Parity may mean general mediocrity, as grizzled league vets grumble, but, if so, I've concluded that excellence is overrated.

This represents, I should confess, a change of position for me. I was one of those pining for a Rams dynasty not long ago. Having grown up in the 1970s and 1980s, the National Football League that I came to know and love was a land of great inequity, made up of a favored few, and the impoverished many--a gridiron version of Dickens' England.

It so happens that as a California kid I was lucky to wind up rooting for the 49ers, then in their Bill Walsh / Joe Montana heyday. The San Francisco squad was part of the ruling oligarchy, along with the Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys, and New York Giants in the NFC, and, in the AFC, the Buffalo Bills, Oakland Raiders, and Denver Broncos. You could pretty much count on all these teams being good every year, and one of them would almost always hoist the Lombardi trophy.

This was swell if you happened to root for one of the favored few but galling if your team was a perennial also-ran. Given the dismal logic of mathematics, it was inevitable that, if a handful of teams dominated every year, the result would be a lot of losing teams and many one-sided games. A blow-out can be fun--I still have fond memories of the 1995 Super Bowl in which the mighty 49ers pasted the hapless San Diego Chargers, 49-26--but only if your team is the one doing the blowing out.

The NFL honchos knew that if things kept on going this way their sport might be in trouble. So the shrewd execs negotiated a tough salary cap (currently about $71.5 million per club) that makes it virtually impossible for any team to stockpile all the talent in the league (as the Yankees have done in baseball).

I was skeptical of this arrangement because it meant that players I had come to cherish in a 49ers uniform would be distributed seemingly at random around the league, producing such anomalies as Joe Montana directing drives for the Kansas City Chiefs and Jerry Rice catching passes for the Oakland Raiders. It would be hard to work up much enthusiasm for any team, I feared, if the cast of characters changed every year. And how could any group reach the heights of the 1972 Dolphins or the 1961 Packers--clubs that are to football what Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong are to jazz--if they couldn't play together for a few years? Football is the most collective of sports; unlike in baseball, you can't trade for another team's star near the end of the season and expect him to be effective in the playoffs. It can take years just to master a playbook.

My fears weren't unjustified but they now seem petty, slight, and overblown when compared to the glorious results delivered by the salary cap--a Lake Woebegone of sports where it seems that every team is a playoff competitor and every game counts. The state of the league was perfectly encapsulated in its last weekend of play, when a division championship, four wild card slots, and home-field advantage in the playoffs were still up for grabs.

The first game of the weekend featured the Giants playing the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday. If the Giants won, they were in the playoffs; if the Eagles won, they would have home-field advantage throughout. A tough defensive battle ensued, with enough twists and turns to keep any fan riveted to his Barcalounger. The Giants emerged victorious by the slimmest of margins: a field goal in overtime.

Another riveting game followed early the next afternoon: Miami Dolphins vs. New England Patriots. If the Dolphins won, they would win the AFC East and a playoff berth; if the Patriots won, and the New York Jets lost later in the day, they would capture the AFC East crown. The Dolphins appeared to be on cruise control until the gritty Pats charged back from an 11-point deficit in the last five minutes, and won on a field goal in overtime.