There is a contradiction about the NFL that has bugged me for years. It’s not that anyone is wrong no matter which side they believe to be true, but I do think has to be acknowledged that there is a significant gray area when it comes to this particular debate: Does the NFL have parity?
The league certainly argues that they are committed to parity, a sport that gives fans of all 32 teams reason to keep believing. However, the NFL also would seem to benefit from having playoff games that feature stars rather than ones that create stars. Case in point, if you could only watch two playoff games this weekend, how many of you would quickly eliminate the teams that are starting Skylar Thompson, Daniel Jones, or possibly Anthony Brown/Tyler Huntley at quarterback?
The NFL and ESPN are betting that you want to watch Tom Brady against the Dallas Cowboys.
The #NFLPlayoffs start with #SuperWildCard Weekend! pic.twitter.com/blHs0K3j7n— NFL (@NFL) January 9, 2023
The league has elements in place that would seem to create and inflate parity, like a draft that strictly rewards teams based on how bad they are; and yet there are quite a few franchises who have high picks for decades without seeming to unlock the answers to success. Only dumb luck, like say Peyton Manning, Trevor Lawrence, or, well, Luck, seems to grant a reprieve to organizational disorder and disarray.
“The NFL does have parity.” Okay, sure. And the Patriots didn’t go the AFC Championship in 13 of 18 years, winning the conference in nine of those seasons.
“Ah, that’s because they’re cheaters!” Okay, sure. And after their two biggest scandals, nothing changed. Spygate happened in September, 2007, just as the team went 18-0 leading into the Super Bowl. Deflategate happened in the 2014 playoffs and the next time the Patriots went to four of the next five Super Bowls, winning three.
If the NFL was “punishing” Bill Belichick for messing with parity and fairness, they sure as hell didn’t do a good job.
“Well, Tom Brady left the AFC and now the AFC has parity again!” The Chiefs, the number one seed in the AFC this season, have reached the last four AFC Championship games, won two of those, and I’m quite certain most of you expect Kansas City to win the one game necessary to make it five in a row. And the Chiefs have been a relatively successful franchise since literally the first Super Bowl.
If the NFL has parity, let’s talk to the most recent expansion teams. Especially since the NFL is once again discussing expansion with regards to the European and foreign markets.
Since entering the NFL in 2002 as the most recent new franchise, the Houston Texans have posted more seasons with 12 losses (7) than years in which they have made the playoffs (6) and the Texans have never made it past the divisional round of the playoffs. In three of those four games, Houston lost 34-16 and 41-28 to New England, with a 51-31 loss to the Chiefs thrown in there three years ago.
If you could get 100-to-1 odds that the Texans would win the Super Bowl in the next five years, would you waste any money on it? In the next 10 years?
The Cleveland Browns returned to the NFL in 1999 and they’ve been much worse than even your darkest memories of the franchise prior to moving to Baltimore. The new Browns have reached the playoffs twice in 23 years, going 1-2, and when they reached the divisional round two years ago that team was still outscored by 11 points in the regular season. The Browns have lost at least 10 games in 17 of their 23 seasons, including a 4-44 stretch from 2015-2017. What is the point of the Browns existing?
The Jaguars and Panthers started play in 1995.
Prior to Jacksonville winning their last five games of the season to reach the playoffs in a ridiculously pointless AFC South division, the Jaguars were 4-8 this year. They were 4-29 in the past two seasons before 2022, and 11-21 in the two seasons before that. Remove their 10-6 season with the number one defense in 2017 featuring Jalen Ramsey and the Jaguars had not posted a winning record since 2007, but did have 11 out of 13 seasons with at least 10 losses. That includes five campaigns in which Jacksonville went 3-13/3-14 or worse.
The Jaguars did miraculously win a lot in their first five seasons, but since 2000 they’ve lost 230 games, the third-most in the NFL during that time. The Browns have lost 244 games and the Lions have lost 237 games.
What is the point of “parity” if not to assure fans that franchises can never become as consistently terrible as the Jaguars, Browns, Lions, and Raiders (221 losses since 2000)?
Carolina has had some success, reaching the Super Bowl in 2003 and 2015, but they’ve also lost double-digit games in each of the last four years and posted a losing record in 10 of the last 13. There has to be a better answer for parity than “Well, sometimes you have to become the worst team in the NFL for a while until you fall ass backwards into a Cam Newton type of player.”
OR we have to accept that the league does not have parity.
From an AFC that was dominated by Tom Brady with sprinkles of Peyton Manning to an AFC dominated by Patrick Mahomes with sprinkles of Josh Allen. Unless, and this is where the AFC becomes more interesting than the NFC, Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence, both number one picks by franchises that probably did not feel that the league had any parity until they fell ass backwards into a franchise quarterback, keep throwing punches in the playoffs.
Certainly Burrow enjoyed that success last season, albeit by getting past the lifeless Raiders and Titans in the first two rounds of the postseason, and Cincinnati could finally call themselves giants in a division (in some form) largely dominated by the Steelers for the past five decades.
Elsewhere in the AFC, you could argue that the Chargers will not go away quietly with Justin Herbert. Maybe they could end a run with one Super Bowl appearance ever and only two wild card playoff wins in the previous 12 seasons. Other teams, like the Dolphins, Ravens, Browns, and Broncos, they hope that you’re underestimating the power of their quarterbacks to be healthy or to rebound in 2023.
But looking up at Mahomes and Herbert in the AFC West, Burrow in the AFC North, and Allen in the AFC East, it seems less likely. Nobody in the AFC South other than the Jaguars even have a quarterback, so maybe Jacksonville can actually enjoy some “parity”—yeah, that’s what it is “parity”, not “organizational ineptitude by all four teams for 20+ years”—for the next decade.
You can see though that the AFC is a minefield and that’s how a team like the Bengals can get to the Super Bowl a year ago instead of Mahomes and Allen, but there is even more intrigue and competition this time around. The Raiders, Titans, Steelers, and Patriots made the AFC playoffs last year. This time, Lawrence replaced Ryan Tannehill, Herbert replaced Derek Carr, the Ravens replaced Ben Roethlisberger (although Lamar Jackson’s place in NFL history is still undetermined and he’s out this weekend again), and a high-powered Dolphins offense has finally displaced Mac Jones and the Patriots.
Even some teams not in the AFC playoffs strongly believe they will get there next year, including the Broncos, Browns, Raiders, Steelers, Patriots, and even the Jets. The Jets!
Now we’ve finally reached the point of talking about why the Los Angeles Rams might not have that difficult of a time getting back to the playoffs and even the Super Bowl by next season. Because while the AFC has been dominated mostly by just two quarterbacks since 2001, the NFC is more than happy to give you that parity you might believe actually exists.
Since the Chicago Bears won the conference in 2006 with Rex Grossman, all but four teams in the NFC have reached the Super Bowl: Cowboys, Lions, Vikings, and I cringe every time I write their name but, the Commanders.
The Eagles, Giants, Packers, Bucs, Saints, Seahawks, and Rams have all won it.
That’s actually pretty impressive and one reason people will argue for parity (remember, I said that it is a “gray area” not a defined yes or no answer to its existence), as 13 different teams have won the Super Bowl in the last 16 iterations. Only the Patriots (three times) and Giants (two times) have won multiple Super Bowls since 2006.
But to find a different franchise other than those 13 to win the Super Bowl, you have to go all the way back to the Cowboys in 1995, a team that won three out of four. And the 49ers in 1994, a team that had won its fifth Super Bowl since 1981.
There was the era of the NFL that was having as hard of a time finding unique champions as the NBA. And now this current era of the NFL in which we probably know who is going to make the playoffs, we just don’t know who is going to be the last team standing.
Given the current state of the NFC, Sean McVay—or whoever ends up coaching the Los Angeles Rams in 2023—might not have a difficult time reaching the playoffs and once you get into the postseason, the road is not going to be paved with future Hall of Fame quarterbacks like it is in the AFC.
Folks, get your hopes up.
The NFC East
The 14-3 Eagles officially made it 18 years in a row that a new team won the NFC East than the previous year. The last team to win the division two years in a row was the 2004 Philadelphia Eagles that lost the Super Bowl to Tom Brady. There is no consistency at all in the East and who would really be shocked if Philadelphia and the New York Giants flipped places in 2023?
The Eagles, who could lose both of their coordinators due to their success, have interesting decisions to make in the offseason, including what Jalen Hurts is worth on a contract extension. Having watched Kyler Murray holdout for $230.5 million, surely Hurts is also going to try and strike while his iron is cooking. But is Hurts worth the $45 million per season that he is going to command?
Those contracts have hurt every single franchise that committed to a quarterback like that who isn’t Mahomes or Allen.
The Giants got to the playoffs ahead of schedule with first-year head coach Brian Daboll. They also went 3-6-1 after a 6-1 start with their only wins coming against the Texans, Colts, and going 1-0-1 against Washington. New York has to decide what free agent Daniel Jones is worth after posting a very Marcus Mariota-like campaign with 15 passing touchdowns and 6.8 yards per attempt. It’s hard to believe that Jones will get a $32 million franchise tag, but it’s not hard to imagine that happening either.
Washington will go quarterback hunting once again, having stayed committed to Ron Rivera despite his 22-27-1 record with the franchise. Rivera has posted three winning seasons in his 12-year career.
And the cap-strapped Cowboys have yet deliver reasons to believe that they will keep their upward momentum going this time after so many promising seasons since 1995 have ended in disappointment followed by a total collapse. Is Mike McCarthy and Dak Prescott really the duo you must fear next year?
The NFC East could have two new quarterbacks next year and/or potentially over-committed salaries to Hurts and Jones, if not a third should Washington attempt a “Russell Wilson-like trade” and we saw how that worked for the Broncos.
I have nothing to say about the Chicago Bears other than they suck. Not worried.
The Packers were backed into a nightmare contract extension with Aaron Rodgers last year that essentially guarantees that the cheapest way to move forward (Green Bay has less than no cap space) is to keep him and take the $31.6 million cap hit. Even a retirement by Rodgers would be much more costly than that because of dead money, and the same goes for trading him. There is a chance that Green Bay does trade Rodgers, accepts the dead money hit, starts Jordan Love, and takes whatever first round picks they can get for him.
But then they’re trading out Rodgers for Love. Keeping Aaron Rodgers and getting a star receiver to pair with Christian Watson would seem to be Green Bay’s best hope for getting back to the playoffs after a nightmarish 8-9 finish. If he retires, the team probably has to accept that with little money to spend, the Lions might once again finish ahead of them in the standings.
And good for the Lions. After winning eight of their last 10, they could feel hopeful about ending a drought in which they haven’t won a playoff game SINCE 1991. Prior to that, they hadn’t won a playoff game SINCE 1957!
The Lions, everybody.
Let’s not forget that the “good” Detroit Lions just allowed the most yards in the NFL this season.
And the “good” 13-4 Minnesota Vikings were outscored 427-424 this year. Barring trade offers, the Vikings and Lions have probably also convinced themselves to bring back Jared Goff and Kirk Cousins, all the more reason to believe that Rodgers will stay right where he is and take the $59 million guaranteed payment that hits his bank account if he doesn’t retire.
Every team in the division posted a losing record. The only quarterback in the division that a team would even want to have back next season, Tom Brady, almost certainly isn’t coming back next season.
And the only head coach in the division who anyone seems to respect...didn’t even coach last season.
Ironically, it’s the weakness of the division that could actually make the Carolina Panthers somewhat attractive to Tom Brady and Sean Payton, albeit super unlikely that New Orleans is trading Payton to a division rival or that he would want to sully his reputation with Saints fans by going there. However, if just one of those teams finds a strong head coach and quarterback duo in the 2023 offseason, they will have great odds of going 6-0 in the division, which means you’re only 6-5 out-of-division away from a 12-5 record.
Until we know for sure that there are no more head coaching changes in the NFC South, and there might be, the Panthers need a quarterback and a HC, the Falcons need a QB, the Saints need a QB, and the Bucs need a QB.
The Saints don’t have a first round pick and are projected $50 million over the salary cap.
The Falcons need a legitimate quarterback but after winning their last two games are picking eighth instead of fifth, so they need to trade up probably.
The Panthers won five of their last eight, so they’re picking ninth instead of in the top-three. They’re also projected over the cap as they search for a new head coach, unless they hire Steve Wilks.
The Bucs are projected $42 million over the cap and Brady probably wants to either retire or give it a shot with a team that isn’t in such a dire situation, choosing his own head coach, his own supporting cast, and not going down with the pirate ship.
I see no reason to think that the Rams have no shot at winning the NFC West next year, only two seasons after being Super Bowl champions.
The 49ers do have a great defense and an efficient offense again. But Brock Purdy is truly just a younger, healthier, and cheaper Jimmy Garoppolo. Which isn’t necessarily bad, but Purdy is not elevating the offense any differently than Garoppolo. Purdy’s accuracy has been spotty, which is more telling when you consider how many checkdowns are in the offensive game plan. Downfield passing has only worked when San Francisco receivers and tight ends are wide open.
This is not to say that the 49ers are due for implosion, like they were in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2020. It is just that repeating the number one defense is a challenge for any team, whereas offensively there is some debate as to who will be or should be the quarterback. Furthermore, San Francisco is likely to lose defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans and offensive coaching assistants will once again be popular with other franchises.
Did other NFL teams learn anything from Jarrett Stidham’s dominant performance against the 49ers, as the Raiders put up 500 total yards against them in Week 17?
The Seahawks have shocked the NFL to make the playoffs at 9-8 with Geno Smith. They’ve also done so without any truly impressive wins absent a 37-23 victory against the Chargers in Week 7. And let’s not forget that the Chargers are still a couple tiers below the NFL’s best.
Seattle has a huge decision to make with Geno Smith, a free agent, as he was arguably the NFL’s worst quarterback in the last five weeks of the season. But as a Pro Bowler in the NFC, Smith probably wants to test his value on a desperate market and that could force Seattle to choose between a franchise tag and starting over at quarterback again, perhaps with Drew Lock.
The Seahawks also had one of the league’s worst defenses.
The Cardinals suck.
Why can’t the Rams, with Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, and Jalen Ramsey all on board, convince Sean McVay and Aaron Donald that indeed the NFC West is ripe for the taking again in 2023? And if L.A. can win the division, then all it takes is reaching the postseason where we’ve seen that anything is possible?
With a team that just experienced what it’s like to be the best team in the NFC playoffs in 2018 and 2021?
Yes, the NFC does have parity. But the Rams aren’t that far off from winning the conference in 2023 and doing their damnedest to prove that it doesn’t exist. And prove that it does.