Rozelle's vision of parity realized in 2013
Even though his club beat Cleveland, 33-30, at Three Rivers Stadium late in the 1979 season, Steelers coach Chuck Noll was irked.
He ripped the officials, claiming they acted on behalf of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. According to Noll, Rozelle was quoted in a magazine as saying he “hated to see (the Steelers) win.”
Whether that statement was accurate, it was no secret Rozelle believed in an egalitarian league without bullies. He pushed parity (or “competitive balance,” as he called it) through equally shared national TV contracts, schedules favoring weaker teams and, of course, the draft. “Any given Sunday” became part of the conversation.
The Steelers, winners of four Super Bowls in six years, ripped parity to shreds.
The last team to approach such consistent excellence was New England, winner of three Super Bowls in four seasons ending in 2004. It might have been the last dynasty. With traditional equalizers like injuries, the draft, salary cap and free agency abetted by rules changes, wide-open offenses and poor tackling, this season parity is in full bloom.
“Pete Rozelle is looking down, smiling,” Fox analyst and former NFL defensive back John Lynch said. “It truly is what he was striving for.”
Thrilling finishes, upsets and a down-to-the-wire playoff scenario are just what the old commish ordered. With three weeks remaining, 25 of the 32 teams, including the struggling Steelers, remain mathematically alive for the playoffs.
“It's been a crazy year,” said ex-NFL quarterback Steve Beuerlein, a CBS game analyst. “Every week it seems there are at least two or three games that will knock your socks off in terms of being surprised.”
Beuerlein said this before the 6-7 Chargers knocked the socks off the 11-2 Broncos — and pretty much everyone else — in Denver on Thursday to further cloud a fuzzy playoff picture. Welcome to Week 15.
Last Sunday was full of surprises, too. Almost simultaneously, Baltimore, New England and Miami won in the final seconds under strange circumstances, including a playground-style, multi-lateral last gasp by the Steelers that came up short against the Dolphins.
Playing for a postseason berth in snowy Baltimore, the Ravens faced Minnesota, playing for next season's jobs. When the Vikings' most potent weapon, Adrian Peterson, went down with an ankle injury in the second quarter, the game should have been over.
Instead, the Ravens narrowly escaped after the teams combined for five touchdowns in the final 2:05.
First-place New England fought back after trailing lowly Cleveland by 16 points late in the third quarter. A controversial pass interference call helped. At Heinz Field, the Steelers-Dolphins matchup looked even going in and coming out, with Miami enhancing its playoff chances and Steelers' hopes vanishing.
But not entirely. At 5-8, the Steelers are still alive, at least according to the math. So are teams whose records are worse. In fact, only one AFC club, Houston, a preseason Super Bowl contender, is absolutely out of contention.
Such is the NFL world in which we live. And not all of it is pretty. At the current pace, only eight teams will record double-figures in wins, a low reached once this century. At the other end, nine teams, the most since 2005, are on pace to finish with 11 losses or more. Then again, the way things are going, who knows how anyone will finish?
“I see throughout the league a lot of just mediocre football,” Lynch said. “I think fundamentals are really struggling right now, because of the way the game is played.”
Lynch is talking about the pass-happy spread formations that have become all the rage. Offenses are scoring at a record pace. Defense is lagging.
“Nowadays, kids are playing in so much space, they're trying to find any way to get a guy down,” he said.
Lynch added that rules changes designed to keep players from tackling with their heads are well-intentioned, “but I think with rules sometimes, while striving for better techniques, it creates poor techniques.”
Still, the TV networks all report higher ratings than last year.
“Obviously, people enjoy this parity,” Beuerlein said.
“If you're a fan it's fun to watch, because you're in it,” former player and head coach Herm Edwards said.
Before the Chargers-Broncos game, Edwards said: “Even Denver, as good as they are, you know you're gonna score 30 on ‘em. You just know.”
The Chargers probably knew and they did score. Not 30, but close enough. They won 27-20.
But Denver remains among a select group of quality teams. Seattle at this point looks to be he most complete, but things can, and likely will change. Everyone has their flaws. San Diego pulled back the curtain on Denver's explosive offense, and the Broncos' defense has been problematic all season. Along with their own defensive issues, the Patriots again must cope with the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski, the most important player on offense after Tom Brady. The main reason the Colts have clinched the AFC South is the rest of the division is lacking.
Baltimore was yet another wild-card to go all the way last season (a recent hallmark of parity) and hopes to do it again. But its offense is not nearly as formidable. Quarterback Joe Flacco, 12th in passer rating in 2012, is 30th this season. The Ravens' 4.5 yards per play is tied for last.
The Jets truly are parity's darling. Mediocre would be a compliment. They are 30th in total offense, last in team passer rating and 24th in points allowed. Yet, somehow, they are 6-7 and talking playoffs.
Parity also is represented by fluctuating records in successive years. Teams that were out (Kansas City under new coach Andy Reid, Arizona under new coach Bruce Arians and Carolina) are among those now in. Houston, Atlanta and Washington. to name three, no longer are the cool kids.
But don't worry. Things will change again next season.
“There always seems to be five new playoff teams who you don't know where they came from,” Edwards said.
“In the old days when you were bad, you were bad for a long, long time,” former Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “When you talk about parity ... Every team is capable of being a playoff team in a short period of time.”
Or not being one. Add some key injuries and “you're one or two players away from being a playoff team or being out of it,” said Billick, a Fox analyst.
In the end, as long as players get hurt and change teams, and clubs draft well — or not — and a salary cap provides constraints, parity will endure.
“You can't keep all your players,” Edwards said. “And sometimes you've got to get bargain basement guys to take their place.”