NFL parity thriving midseason

Parity lives. According to Elias Sports Bureau, this season marks the first since 1959 – I think Brett Favre was a rookie then:) – that every NFL team has lost at least two of its first eight games.

Halfway through the season, the NFL talks the talk and walks the walk of the mantra of all professional sports leagues -- competitive balance. There are no “super teams” and it appears that every fan base outside of Buffalo, Dallas and Carolina can retain some hope to be playing in January 2011 when the playoffs begin.

Baseball’s bragging about balance

With Major League Baseball’s World Series just ending between two teams not familiar to any recent championship game – the Giants and Rangers – Commissioner Bud Selig was crowing. The fact that these teams triumphed over the Phillies and Yankees showed the across-the-board power of baseball and that MLB’s cherished competitive balance is alive and well.

Selig, the former owner of the Milwaukee Brewers -- and member of the Green Bay Packers Board of Directors -- relished in the Rangers, possessing the fourth-smallest payroll in MLB ($55 million), dethroning the Yankees and their excessive payroll. To Selig, any World Series is a good one without the Yankees, the symbol of anti-competitive balance in baseball.

Uncapped parity?

Ironically, the 2010 NFL and MLB have something in common: the lack of a Salary Cap. Baseball has never had a Cap and the NFL is in this unique year prior to the expiration of the CBA where the league is uncapped. In theory, the lack of a Cap should make the league less competitive, with large-market and large-revenue teams able to buy up talent without restriction on payroll. The Salary Cap is a key measures in league collective bargaining agreements designed to promote parity by placing all teams on a level playing field by restricting team payrolls to a comparable amount for all.

And guess what? With the Cap in place in 2009, there was much discussion about the lack of parity and a league of good and bad teams. Now, with no Cap in the NFL this year, we have this once-in-a-generation parity.

Bang for the buck

As noted here when discussing large free agent signings, increasing player payroll appears to have limited correlation to team success. In this year of parity so far, there is little to take away in terms of hard line rules to guide us, but let’s take a look:

Of the low-spending teams, some are doing well (Buccaneers, Chiefs, Titans), some middling (Jaguars, Chargers, Cardinals) and some poorly (Bills, Panthers, Broncos). Many of these teams have used the uncapped year to take advantage of the lack of a floor for spending, using 2010 as a year to bring debt under control and gird for the next system, whenever that may be. A couple of these teams are spending as little as $85 million when the previous Cap floor was $109 million.

Of the higher-spending teams, some are doing well (Raiders), some middling (Bears, Vikings, Redskins, Dolphins) and some poorly (Cowboys, 49ers).

Formula for success

Success in the NFL is obviously a multi-pronged strategy, but there does appear to be an operational philosophy that endures. Drafting well, developing young players, and having a deep and talented infrastructure coming through the pipeline is the most proven method for sustained success.

Selected and targeted free agent or trade acquisitions can be sprinkled in, but scattershot free agency usually involves the targeting overpriced assets not pursued by their incumbent teams for a reason.

The Redskins (Albert Haynesworth), Cowboys (Roy Williams) and Raiders (Javon Walker, DeAngelo Hall) all certainly would love to take mulligans on their pricey free agent and/or trade acquisitions, signings that have negatively impacted addressing other areas of their teams.

My sense is that the much-discussed parity in the NFL today will fade into a discussion of a handful of teams well positioned for a playoff run. Parity lives, but only a little while longer.

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