Where Did All The NFL Parity Go?
by Scott Kacsmar
No, we did not choose to write about parity just because the Chicago Cubs ended a 108-year drought by winning the World Series this week. However, didn't watching that series against the Cleveland Indians, another long-suffering franchise (last title: 1948), spark some thoughts about what the NFL equivalent would look like for a Super Bowl? That would be like watching the Arizona Cardinals take on the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl LI, or maybe the Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings if you preferred two teams that have not (permanently) moved and have not been to the big game in recent years. In fact, Cleveland (last title: 1964) has never reached the Super Bowl, and Minnesota's lone NFL "championship" feels hollow, because the 1969 Vikings still lost Super Bowl IV to Kansas City.
Five of the 10 longest championship droughts in American sports belong to NFL teams: Cardinals (69 years), Lions (59), Eagles (56), Titans/Oilers (55) and Chargers (53). The Browns (52), Bills (51), and Falcons (50) are right behind them, and while Super Bowl wins by the Jets (1968) and Chiefs (1969) helped merge the AFL with the NFL, those teams have not been back to the big game ever since.
With the NFL's 2016 season having reached Week 9, we are already expecting some familiar faces to be playing in February. New England has the second-easiest remaining schedule and looks poised to win out, which would mean a record ninth Super Bowl appearance (and seven in the last 16 seasons). If that doesn't make you groan, then consider the Patriots' best competition just may be the three teams who are also looking for a ninth Super Bowl appearance: Denver, Pittsburgh, and Dallas. Well, at least none of them signed Kevin Durant to help make this happen.
While the NFL is not quite on the NBA's level as a league with few legitimate contenders, there really is not a valid claim to parity right now. A few weeks after the mighty Patriots destroyed the lowly Browns (now halfway to an 0-16 season), we might be looking at disparity at its grandest scale since the 1970 merger. Anything can happen once a team reaches the tournament, so beyond just focusing on Super Bowls, we looked at the playoff droughts through which teams have been suffering.
Average Playoff Droughts
If Buffalo (4-4) fails to make the playoffs again this season, then that would mean 17 straight seasons that the Bills have missed the playoffs. Only the 1970-1986 Saints had a streak that long since the merger, and the Saints technically had to wait 20 years dating back to their 1967 inaugural season.
What I wanted to do was take each team's playoff drought since the merger to calculate the league's average playoff drought for each season. So starting in 1970, every team that missed the playoffs would have a one-year drought, while the playoff teams from that season (or any one since) would all get a zero.
Naturally, 1970 (0.7) and 1971 (1.3) had the shortest droughts since that was the starting point of the study, but the period of 2000-01 was the next lowest at 1.65 seasons. That was just before the addition of the Houston Texans and the realignment to eight divisions that we have enjoyed ever since the 2002 campaign. The season with the greatest average drought was 1977 at 3.6 seasons, but 2015 was right behind it at 3.5 seasons.
I separated the AFC from the NFC and made a graph of the average playoff drought by year since 1970.
During the 1970s, the NFC had some really long droughts (all reached at least eight seasons) from teams such as Atlanta, Detroit, New Orleans, the Giants, and Philadelphia. That explains some of the early differences between the two conferences, but you can see that the average drought for both dropped in the early 1980s. Much of this was due to the nine-game strike season in 1982, when 16 teams made the playoffs for the only time in NFL history. Some of these teams likely would not have made the playoffs had 1982 been a full 16-game season:
- The Detroit Lions ended an 11-season playoff drought with a 4-5 record.
- The Green Bay Packers ended a nine-season playoff drought with a 5-3-1 record, and did not make the playoffs again until the Brett Favre era in 1993.
- The St. Louis Cardinals ended a six-season playoff drought with a 5-4 record, and did not make the playoffs again until they were in Arizona in 1998.
Yes, had it not been for a strike, the Cardinals may have gone 22 consecutive seasons without the playoffs, and the Packers may have gone 20.
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For the heart of the 1980s, the NFC had the best teams, with San Francisco, Washington, the Giants, and Chicago often competing against each other for Super Bowls. If you may recall, the NFC won every Super Bowl from the 1984 through 1996 seasons. In the AFC, there were a lot of great quarterbacks, but the flawed teams around them were too inconsistent, leading to more variation in the playoff teams. For as great as Dan Marino was right away in his career, his Dolphins actually missed the playoffs four years in a row from 1986 to 1989 on teams without a running game or defense earning their paychecks.
By the time the AFC improved around 1997, the two conferences were about equal in playoff droughts. But since 1998, the NFC's average playoff drought has never exceeded 2.4 seasons. Meanwhile, the AFC has exceeded that number for each of the last eight seasons.
In fact, no conference since the merger has had a worse average playoff drought than the 2015 AFC at 4.6 seasons. While the Rams (11 seasons) and Buccaneers (eight seasons) are looking to continue some really bad streaks in 2016, the NFC cannot compare to the seven AFC teams -- nearly half the conference -- who are working on no-playoff streaks of at least five seasons right now.
What Killed Parity in the AFC?
So while the Cubs were not our inspiration for this one, we can say that the Week 8 Thursday night game between Jacksonville and Tennessee was. Of course the ratings are down when games like this are on the prime-time schedule. Who wants to watch two teams that have been irrelevant for years?
The Patriots and Broncos have been the only AFC teams to earn first-round byes since 2012, and both are the current favorites to do so again this year. Since 1990, the only other teams to earn four straight byes were the 49ers and Cowboys from 1992-95. The NFC has certainly been much more open to variation, or parity as we are describing it. Last season, Carolina (15-1) and Arizona (13-3) met in the NFC Championship Game to go to the Super Bowl. This year, the two just met in a forgettable Week 8 affair with five wins between them. (OK, five-and-a-half wins.) If Carolina (2-5) and Arizona (3-4-1) both miss the playoffs, it will mark the seventh time that both conference championship teams missed the playoffs the following year since 1990. It would be the fifth time in the NFC, and the first since the Bears and Saints in 2007.
Unfortunately, we often run into low-significance games in the AFC. The Bills (16), Raiders (13), Browns (13), Jaguars (eight), Titans (seven), Dolphins (seven) and Jets (five) are the seven AFC teams with a no-playoff streak of at least five seasons. With Buffalo slipping, Oakland topping the Broncos or the Titans taking a weak division may be the only hope of the AFC ending these streaks this year.
How did the AFC get to be so lopsided? Sure, we could go through each team's most regrettable moves over the years, but that would be a lot of words for something that is so simple and obvious. These teams have continuously failed to find consistency at the head coach and quarterback positions. Sorry Jacksonville fans, but Gus Bradley and Blake "The Garbage Man" Bortles are not going to outsmart and outplay Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Maybe Oakland is on the right path after getting Jack Del Rio and Derek Carr, but we'll see what happens when the schedule toughens up again like it did last year, when the Raiders lost six of their last nine games to finish 7-9.
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Obviously, the quarterback position has a huge impact on determining regular-season success. This is where the Patriots hold the biggest divisional advantage over the rest of the NFL, because Brady has been so far ahead of what the other three AFC East teams have managed to come up with since 2001. After all of those years and transactions, Chad Pennington is the best this division has had to combat Brady, who even missed the 2008 season with a torn ACL when Pennington was in Miami. With such little threat of the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins being able to win 10 to 12 games in any given season, the Patriots can basically book a home playoff game every offseason.
The quarterback disparity is not as huge in the other divisions, but this recent era really deserves more credit for being arguably the finest collection of quarterbacks at one time at any point in league history. I think Manning, Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger all deserve to be mentioned among the 15 best to ever play quarterback, and it does not help the AFC that four of them started their careers there.
While the Patriots have controlled the East with Brady, the other AFC divisions have also been largely ruled by all-time great quarterbacks. The North has had Roethlisberger, though his annual injuries have helped Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton be good enough in some years on defensive-minded teams to win that division too. The South used to be ruled by Peyton Manning, and then the Colts lucked out in 2012 by getting Andrew Luck, the best quarterback prospect in the draft since… Peyton Manning. The Colts have really only lost the division recently when their quarterback was injured, including Manning in 2011 and Luck in 2015. The Chargers used to run the West when they had the torch passed from Brees to Philip Rivers, but once Rivers declined a little, Manning came to Denver in 2012 and continued his historic success.
Now with Manning retired and the talent depreciation in Indianapolis, it is up to players like Carr and Marcus Mariota to step up and bring change to the AFC landscape. Maybe we are seeing this in the AFC West, but we probably won't see change in the AFC East until Brady retires. Even then, that depends on how long Belichick keeps coaching. Jimmy Garoppolo still technically has the 15th-most passing DYAR (231) this season, and he did not even finish six quarters of action.
When we look at the NFC over the same time period, we do not see the same quarterback disparities, hence more playoff variation.
In the East, players such as Tony Romo, Eli Manning, and Donovan McNabb were on a fairly similar tier for years, with one-off performances from Michael Vick (2010 Eagles), Nick Foles (2013 Eagles), Robert Griffin III (2012 Redskins), and Kirk Cousins (2015 Redskins) also leading to playoff seasons. Since 2011, the NFC South has had Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Cam Newton, and each has led his team to multiple playoff appearances. In the North, Aaron Rodgers had the Packers on top as long as Brett Favre wasn't dominating in Minnesota (2009), but with Rodgers not playing like an all-time great in the last year, Minnesota has taken advantage. Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford are basically the same solid-but-inconsistent guys, but with different dispositions. The West has been set up well for Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, but Carson Palmer had his own MVP-worthy season a year ago, and Colin Kaepernick used to be good for the 49ers.
Say what you will about the 49ers quarterback now, but the 2012-13 version of Kaepernick, paired with a coach like Jim Harbaugh, was the type of talent that these AFC divisions have rarely ever been challenged by since realignment. The fact that Jared Goff (hey, remember him?), Carson Wentz, and Dak Prescott were all drafted to NFC teams this year probably does not bode too well for the AFC's competitive future. Well, at least maybe Cleveland can have its pick of the top quarterback in the 2017 draft. Perhaps nothing says more about the AFC's disparity than the infamous jersey that listed 24 different starting quarterbacks for the Browns since 1999.
Projecting the 2016 Playoff Drought Average
We will not know what the final 2016 playoff drought average is until Week 17 ends, but using the latest playoff odds, we can make a good estimate at the midway point.
In the NFC, the expected playoff field currently includes Dallas (94.5 percent), Atlanta (84.3 percent), Seattle (84.0 percent), Minnesota (77.8 percent), Philadelphia (63.5 percent) and Green Bay (53.3 percent).
In the AFC, the expected playoff field currently includes New England (99.1 percent), Denver (83.1 percent), Pittsburgh (61.6 percent), Houston (45.9 percent), Oakland (70.8 percent) and Kansas City (67.6 percent).
Assuming those teams make the playoffs, these would be the projected 2016 playoff droughts.
|Projected 2016 Playoff Droughts|
|AFC Team||Drought||NFC Team||Drought|
With an average drought of 3.53 seasons, 2016 would edge out 2015 (3.50), but still trail 1977 (3.57) for the longest average drought season since the merger. The AFC average would be the second-highest behind last year, but should Oakland falter and a team like the Bengals rallies back, then the AFC drought shoots up to a record 5.2 seasons.
To say that Oakland's ultra-rare Sunday Night Football appearance in Week 9 is a big deal might be the understatement of the year. Not only are the Raiders looking for a statement win in a first-place battle with Denver, but you could say this game is about showing whether the AFC has any new tricks up its sleeve, or if we are just waiting for the inevitable Patriots-Broncos or Patriots-Steelers showdown in January, followed by a Super Bowl rematch like Patriots-Seahawks, or Steelers-Seahawks, or Steelers-Cowboys.
With the Football Outsiders playoff odds now pointing to Patriots-Cowboys as the most likely matchup for Super Bowl LI, maybe 2016 was meant to be a year for picking the lesser of two evils. If you're a fan hoping to see some change in the postseason, this is especially not the year for you.