Parity in the NFL, the league’s cheery talking point since shortly after they first put laces on a football, has mostly been a lie. Despite commissioner Roger Goodell’s insistence during the last collective bargaining agreement that competitive balance exists and must continue to exist in the NFL, the idea has been grossly overstated. About half of all conference championship berths since 2000 have been split among five teams. Since 2009, the NHL and MLB have had more parity, according to the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective. There have been, over the past two decades of the hard salary cap, nods toward the concept—weekly upsets, 6-seeds making playoff runs—but nothing sustained.
That’s what makes this year so unusual: It’s happening, and the forces at work suggest that it may not be a fluke. The league will never have a season in which all 32 teams tie for first and last at 8-8, but it’s inching closer to it, so get those tiebreakers ready. This year, 14 NFL teams have three wins heading into Week 7—up from nine last year and five at this point in 2015. That year, there were five undefeated teams through six weeks; this year there are zero. But most shockingly, underdogs are covering the spread 60 percent of the time—and road underdogs are covering 62.5 percent of the time through Sunday.
If you want the eye test, the NFL can give you that, too: a winless and moribund Giants without their best player beat the previously 3-1 Broncos on the road on Sunday night, the Rams and Jaguars played the week’s marquee game, and the Chargers beat a Raiders team that was supposed to be a Super Bowl contender.
This is the parity the NFL talks about but usually doesn’t have. The 2017 season, thus far, has been defined by widespread mediocrity. No one is perfect, no one is even great, and it may stay that way.
Could it just be a blip and might we be watching the same old faces come January? Sure, but what’s more likely is that a number of on- and off-field factors have converged to push and pull more teams toward the middle. Whether or not the NFL genuinely wants it is another question altogether.
NFL teams have a spending problem.
“There are lot of teams overspending and overextending,” said Zack Moore, a certified contract adviser who writes for Over the Cap. “There are 17 quarterbacks who account for over 10 percent of the salary cap—and that increases the parity.”
There is a strange quirk in NFL spending. Moore says that no team has ever won the Super Bowl while paying its top two players more than 21.5 percent of its salary cap. Plenty of teams have made the Super Bowl spending well above this rate—including last season’s Falcons and the Panthers the season before—but they’ve all lost. Last year’s Patriots spent a little over 15 percent of the cap on their top two players. Spending too much on two players, especially if they are not, in Moore’s words, going to give you “Hall of Fame production,” is a good way to ensure you won’t be the league’s best team. Moore points to the Miami Dolphins as an example. The salaries for defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and injured quarterback Ryan Tannehill combine for over 22 percent of the cap. Crucially, a healthy Tannehill doesn’t come close to Hall of Fame production.
“The roster construction isn’t viable but a lot of teams are doing it, which leads to parity,” he said.
In particular, Moore studies quarterback salaries closely. He thinks the top tier of signal-callers should get about 10 to 13 percent of the salary cap. Aaron Rodgers, for instance, has a cap hit of $20.3 million this season—12.3 percent of the Packers’ cap and a fair salary for one of the top quarterbacks in the league. Moore then estimates that the second tier—the Matthew Staffords of the world—should grab between 6 and 10 percent of the salary cap. The problem is that the second tier does not exist in the current NFL; teams have overpaid these players, and the first and second tier have melded together. Only two quarterbacks in the league make between $7 million and $14 million: Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor and Miami's Jay Cutler, who was coaxed out of the Fox broadcasting booth during preseason.
Due to spending habits, the teams with the best players have weaker overall rosters, while teams without stars can stack above-average players but don’t have stars. That limits the potential across the league. Now, it’s hard to blame some of these teams—if you have Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, you have to pay them a lot. But so many teams going with a top-heavy approach has led to a flood of good-not-great teams. For a top-heavy club to make a run, it has to augment the huge salaries by hitting on a cluster of draft picks. For a Super Bowl champ, the 2015 Broncos are near the top in salary cap spending for their top two players, but filled out a roster featuring highly paid stars Peyton Manning and Demaryius Thomas with players on bargain contracts including Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, and Derek Wolfe.
The flip side of this is Buffalo, which is off to a surprising 3-2 start and leads the NFL in scoring defense. The Bills pay veteran quarterback Taylor just 6 percent of the salary cap and then use the bulk of their space on the defense and their offensive line.
According to retired longtime NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz, the movement toward highly paid stars and rookie contracts leads to sloppier play across the league because the vast majority of teams cannot afford many mid-tier veterans.
“You have to choose to build one—a good offense or good defense?” said Schwartz, now an analyst for SiriusXM and SB Nation. He uses the example of the New York Giants, who have built a talented defense largely via free agency but have the NFL’s 30th-ranked scoring offense. “Teams are having to decide what side they are going to spend money on.”
In 2011, the league struck a collective bargaining agreement that limited practice time and banned two-a-days from NFL training camp. Schwartz said most of the NFL’s on-field problems—lack of offensive line cohesion and tackling issues—can be traced back to this. It also created an environment where teams had less time to differentiate themselves on the practice field. Part of what makes a great team great is what it does during preparation time, so when there’s less prep time, there’s less time for the wheat to separate itself from the chaff. This has led to some teams, understanding that there’s no way to be ready for the season under the current rules, taking things much more slowly.
“It’s crazy when you hit seven times before the [first] preseason game,” Schwartz said. “The first two weeks of the regular season felt like the preseason and even now it seems preseason-ish.”
Schwartz said that six seasons into the agreement, every team has basically the same plan now. When his career began in 2008, teams differed wildly on practice schedules and techniques since there were virtually no restrictions. While some teams initially dealt with the limited time better than others, that didn’t last long.
“Everyone is doing the same thing,” he said. “A few years ago, only three teams were doing sports science, now everyone is. Everyone has the exact same schedule.”
Teams are developing at a pace we are not used to—leading to unprecedented unpredictability over the early part of the year. Just look at the Saints.
They have two young cornerbacks: rookie first-round pick Marshon Lattimore and 2016 college free agent Ken Crawley. They also have a second-round rookie safety in Marcus Williams. To start the season, the team looked completely lost on defense.
“You’d see two guys keying on one receiver and leaving one receiver alone,” said Dan Hatman, a longtime NFL scout and now the head of the Scouting Academy.
But then, Hatman pointed out, the Saints became competent on defense over the past few weeks. After starting the season by giving up 341 and 436 passing yards in their first two games, they gave up 281 on Sunday to the Detroit Lions.
“The analysis, discussion, and debate existed when I joined the league in the mid-1980s, and I got the sense that it started well before I was there, and it continues now,” said Amy Trask, former Oakland Raiders CEO and now a CBS Sports analyst. “It’s always: ‘parity vs. dynasty?’”
Trask said the majority of owners favor parity—most of the time: “Al [Davis] acknowledged that he liked dynasties—but I always said he only thought that if we were the dynasty.”
The NFL has long held the view that parity is a good thing and that “anything can happen on Sunday” is the reason fans tune in every weekend. However, there’s no clear consensus on what fans across sports prefer. Baseball ratings tend to dip when the Yankees aren’t involved. The dominant Chicago Bulls of the 1990s brought in record Finals ratings—and the current Golden State Warriors have brought with them ratings not seen since the early-2000s Lakers, another dynasty. In soccer, La Liga has the least parity of any league on the planet, according to the Harvard Analysis paper, but viewership for a Barcelona vs. Real Madrid match may top 100 million.
It is impossible to divorce fan interest from fantasy football or how good the NFL looks on television, but nevertheless, the league thinks parity is important. And so, the league is built on the appearance of fairness. National television revenue is split equally. There’s a hard salary cap, set this year at $167 million. The NFL draft, which does not have a lottery system but gives teams better picks purely based on how poor their record was the previous season, is designed simply to make the bad teams better. Fairness is legislated.
Of course, there are workarounds. Trask says that there is a “huge gap between Team 1 and Team 32 with respect to revenue streams.” Even though much of the money is shared, local revenue—things like sponsorships, tickets, and concessions—is not. “There are a lot of unshared revenues and that creates a gap—and the system is set up by the owners to mitigate to some extent the issues borne of such a gap.”
The NFL wanted parity, and now it’s here. But if parity looks like a bad Giants team dismantling the Broncos on Sunday night in Denver, it won’t be long until the NFL ends up wishing it had its own version of Barcelona–Real Madrid.