Home > FNQB, NFL > FNQB: Parity and Talent Discrepancy in the NFL

FNQB: Parity and Talent Discrepancy in the NFL

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Parity and competitive balance.  These are principles that are credited for sports outcomes that either favor strong regression to the mean effects, or if there’s high volatility in year to year results.  Of course, regression and volatility are not parity.  A perfect instance of parity can only occur when all teams in a league are of the same true talent level.  We, as a sports media, liberally extend parity to include eras in sports where there is a strong illusion of parity.  Parity in results is known as competitive balance, thus, when things are accepted to be balanced, sports leagues are defined by their parity.

Many believe that the NFL is the first professional sports league to achieve parity.  This is accepted because you can look at the NBA, and see the vast concentration of titles in the hands of just three franchises, and you look at baseball, and their salary structure greatly favors a couple of “haves” in the northeast, the oldest of the franchises.  There is no geographical stronghold in professional football, and the financial disparities don’t translate into talent disparities on the field.  Thus, it is concluded that competitive balance is strong in the NFL.

In the late nineties and early aughts, this was probably more true than false.  In the 14 seasons between 1994 and 2007, eleven different teams won the Super Bowl.  Free agency and the a radical idea of salary cap had created strong competitive balance.  Free agency worked so well because there was a very finite amount of available free agents who could assist any given team in improving themselves, and not all free agents could help all teams.  It allowed individual players to find someone who would pay them without necessarily drawing a parallel between spending money and winning.

In the last six years, 2/3rds of NFL playoff berths are held by the top third of the NFL hierarchy.  The remaining third are held almost exclusively by a middle tier of teams.  The last third of NFL teams has combined for just three playoff berths in six seasons (the 2006 Chiefs, the 2004 Rams, and the 2008 Dolphins).  Since 2001, only six teams have won the super bowl, and the AFC in particular shows no parity: only four teams have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl.  One of those teams is the Raiders, who haven’t won so many as six games in a season since appearing in SB37.

If parity in the NFL isn’t dead, it’s declining in the NFC thanks to emerging powerhouses, and has been dead in the AFC for some time.  What has happened to parity, and why has it disappeared?  Will it re-appear?  And how do the CBA negotiations play into all of this.  Let us investigate.

Bad teams staying bad

The aforementioned Raiders have earned their 29-83 record since 2003.  The Lions haven’t been to the playoffs since 1999.

The rise of teams like the 1999 Rams, the 2001 Patriots, the 2003 Panthers, the 2008 Cardinals, and the 2009 Saints — teams that went to the super bowl a year after missing the playoffs — have conditioned fans to expect the unexpected.  Playoff team turnover tends to be in the 50% range year to year.  Extrapolated to extremes, these phenomena have been used to support the hypothesis that any team can make a run in any year — that neither talent nor past performance can predict future performance.

While there have been a handful of teams who have made the postseason following a “bad” year — defined by me as posting a Total DVOA worse than -10.1%, it was nearly impossible throughout the era of parity for a “really bad” (-20.1% or worse) team to make the postseason the next year.  Here’s a list of all the -10.1% teams who made the postseason the next year between 1997 and 2008:

  • 2008 Bengals -19.3%
    2007 Falcons -26.5%
    2007 Dolphins -22.2%
    2007 Panthers -20.1%
    2007 Cardinals -11.6%
    2006 Buccaneers -20.0%
    2006 Seahawks -12.9%
    2005 Saints -22.5%
    2004 Bears -27.1%
    2003 Falcons -18.4%
    2003 Chargers -11.9%
    2002 Panthers -11.1%
    2001 Falcons -19.2%
    2001 Colts -11.4%
    2000 Bears -12.4%
    1999 Saints -39.0%
    1998 Redskins -20.5%
    1998 Colts -17.5%
    1998 Lions -13.1%
    1997 Bills -13.5%
    1997 Cardinals -21.0%

Between 1998 and 2004, only the 1998 Redskins and the 1999 Saints even made the postseason after having a “really bad” season.  Volatility in the DVOA results has increased since then, so we’ve come to expect one really bad team making the playoffs in the next year.

But 12 teams have to make the playoffs, and that represents almost 40% of the league.  We’ve seen a fair share of bad teams make the postseason in the years they were bad.  What if we raise the standard to eliminate teams that didn’t make the divisional round?

  • 2007 Panthers -20.1%
    2007 Cardinals -11.6%
    2006 Seahawks -12.9%
    2005 Saints -22.5%
    2004 Bears -27.1%
    2003 Falcons -18.4%
    2002 Panthers -11.1%
    2001 Falcons -19.2%
    2000 Bears -12.4%
    1999 Saints -39.0%
    1998 Redskins -20.5%
    1997 Cardinals -21.0%

We still have the 1999 Saints and the 2004 Bears, who were really, really terrible teams, but we’ve now eliminated most of the worst teams on that list.  If we disallow teams that failed to win a postseason game, drop the 2000 and 2004 Bears, and the 2007 Panthers.  Those teams played well enough to get bye weeks the next season, but were blown out in the divisional round at home.

Now if we take it to the level of making an appearance in a conference championship game, we reach a pretty conclusive outcome:

  • 2007 Cardinals -11.6%
    2005 Saints -22.5%
    2003 Falcons -18.4%
    2002 Panthers -11.1%

Those are the only four teams in the last twelve seasons to be legitimately “bad” teams, and then reach their conference championship game the next season.  Of course, three out of those four failed to post even an average DVOA in their conference championship season.  The exception, again, is the Katrina-displaced Saints.  The New Orleans Saints are the only franchise in this timeframe to make the playoffs after a dreadful (-30.1%) season, and they are the only team to get to the round of four with an above average regular season DVOA the year after posting a bad season.

In this way, parity never existed.  Bad teams used to almost never rebound enough to make the postseason.  Then with divisional realignment in 2002, bad teams started to get more of a chance, if they won a weak division.  In fact, the 2002 Falcons are the only team on the list post-realignment to follow a bad season with a wild card berth.  Terrible teams, with a lone exception or two are more or less dead in the water.  The NFL might have been known for parity, but clearly, bad teams have a tendency to stay bad.  If they happen to sneak into the postseason by posting a really good divisional record, their postseason fortunes tend to be even worse.

If there’s a surprise team that’s going to take home the hardware in 2010, it’s not going to be the Raiders, Seahawks, Rams, or Lions.  These teams are historically unlikely to make the postseason.

Superpowers and Dynasties

When the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers took five world titles of American football between then in just nine years, some pontificated on the death of parity.  It’s a superficial argument to be sure, after all, in the height of the era of parity, the Broncos and Patriots combined to win five titles in eight years, and the Cowboys and Patriots have both had 3-in-4 title runs* in the free agency era.

*Although Free Agency couldn’t have affected these dynasties differently.  The Cowboys dynasty was ultimately done in by free agency and the eventual aging of its superstars, whereas the Patriots would have been a one hit wonder if not for players like Rodney Harrison, Corey Dillon, Christian Fauria, Tyrone Poole, Keith Traylor, and Mike Vrabel.

Certainly though, there’s something of substance to the idea that most great teams don’t return as great teams after the offseason.  Here are all the instances since 1997-98 of a team either posting consecutive 20.1% DVOA seasons, or 2 seasons out of three above the same threshold:

-Teams who went 3+ consecutive years as a “great” team are noted in boldface.

  • 2008-09 Baltimore Ravens
  • 2008-09 Philadelphia Eagles
  • 2007, 2009 New England Patriots
  • 2006, 2008 Baltimore Ravens
  • 2006, 2008 Philadelphia Eagles
  • 2006-07 New England Patriots
  • 2006-07 Jacksonville Jaguars
  • 2005, 2007 Indianapolis Colts
  • 2005-06 San Diego Chargers
  • 2004, 2006 New England Patriots
  • 2004, 2006 Philadelphia Eagles
  • 2004, 2006 Baltimore Ravens
  • 2004-05 Pittsburgh Steelers
  • 2004-05 Denver Broncos
  • 2003-05 Indianapolis Colts
  • 2003, 2005 Kansas City Chiefs
  • 2003-04 New England Patriots
  • 2002, 2004 Philadelphia Eagles
  • 2002-03 Kansas City Chiefs
  • 2001-02 Philadelphia Eagles
  • 2000-02 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • 1999-02 Oakland Raiders
  • 2000, 2002 Miami Dolphins
  • 1999, 2001 St. Louis Rams
  • 1998, 2000 Miami Dolphins
  • 1997, 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars
  • 1996-98 Denver Broncos
  • 1993-98 San Francisco 49ers

There’s been an average of about six teams per year to qualify for this designation, but the teams that repeat are usually the same few teams every year.  The Ray Lewis Baltimore Ravens.  The Peyton Manning Colts.  The Belichick/Brady Patriots.  The Dungy/Kiffin Bucs.  The Gannon/Gruden Raiders.  Steve Young’s 49ers.  Elway’s Broncos.  The Johnson/Wannestedt Dolphins.  A brief appearance from the Shanahan/Plummer Broncos.

Two of the oddballs on this list: the Jacksonville Jaguars made it with two completely different personnel groups.  They appeared in the late-90’s with the Brunell/Coughlin/McCardell group, and then tore down, drafted Byron Leftwich, developed the young team, and then jumped back up to an elite level in the middle of the decade…with David Garrard in place of Leftwich first for injury, later for good.  The other oddity is that Dick Vermeil had a seven year run where teams he coached or teams he built were above the 20.1% figure in five of those seasons, as a coach over the age of 60.  Perhaps the other oddity is that the New York Jets never made it onto this list, but they have played in two conference championship games bookending this timeframe, and were a made field goal away from a third in 2004.  The New York Giants made the postseason four consecutive years from 2005 to 2008, but were a great team just once: 2008, when they made the super bowl run in January, and played great until about mid-December.

And if you think this is just a quarterback dominated list, consider this list of QBs of the most 20.1% or better DVOA teams in the last 15 years:

  1. Steve Young, 6
  2. Donovan McNabb, 6
  3. Peyton Manning, 5
  4. Tom Brady, 5
  5. Rich Gannon, 4
  6. Troy Aikman, 4
  7. Brett Favre, 4
  8. Steve McNair, 3 (2000, 2003 Titans; 2006 Ravens)
  9. Mark Brunell, 3 (1997, 1999 Jaguars; 2005 Redskins)
  10. John Elway, 3
  11. Trent Green, 3

Is that anyone’s list of the best quarterbacks of the last 15 years?  Green Bay appears 5 times on the list three times going back to 1993, but one of those years was 2009 with Aaron Rodgers, and the Vikings didn’t quite make the threshold of a great team last year.  And it’s true that Favre didn’t play on a lot of great teams between 1998 and 2006.

In fact, the league hasn’t been quarterback driven over the last 17 years or so.  It’s been driven by short, mini-dynasties, but if I told you that the enduring franchises of the last decade were the Colts, the Raiders, and the Bucs, you’d take great issue with that assertion.  Yet, those are the only three teams in the last ten years to shake off the pitfalls of regression for longer than two years at a time.  The Ravens, Eagles, and Patriots have all been consistently excellent teams throughout the decade (and to a much lesser degree, the Steelers), and those teams, along with the Colts, are probably the teams of the decade, but if parity isn’t dying, it would be unreasonable to expect the Ravens and the Eagles to remain great teams for the third straight year.

Conclusions

Since the Colts have undergone a small, very quiet fall from the AFC’s elite (especially since they made it to 14-0 and the super bowl last year, though this SB loss will look much different in two years when the Colts aren’t a playoff team anymore), the Ravens, Eagles, and Patriots have been the controlling NFL teams in the past four NFL seasons.  In that timeframe, those teams have combined for 123 regular season wins, and ten playoff victories, just under one per year, per team.

It’s a testament to the parity of teams that those teams have combined for zero super bowl victories and just one appearance in those four seasons.  Parity in the playoff field appears to be at an all time high, although I’m not sure that’s necessarily the best form of parity.

It could be short lived.  Parity in the regular season is clearly dying, and in the case of really bad teams, never existed to begin with.  It’s becoming increasingly harder for 8-8 teams to get any better because in a zero sum game, someone has to fall to create room at the top.  And while teams have been unable to stave off the “down” year for long stretches, most teams (such as the Colts, Giants, Panthers, Chargers, etc) have figured out how to dominate their divisions even in a down year.  The Philip Rivers chargers haven’t been to the top of the DVOA leaderboards since 2006, but they’ve won their division each year against all odds, usually due to some crippling Broncos collapse.

I’ll write in the future about how football’s financial structure is contributing to keep small market poor drafting teams in the cellar year after year.  Hopefully by the time I get around to that, those teams get a new perspective that helps them start to win in the absence of parity: at the expense of someone else.

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