On any Sunday, parity prevails

NFL: In a season marked by upsets, comebacks and turnarounds, one thing is certain: There's no sure thing.

Midseason Report

November 09, 2001|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

In a half-season with little rhyme and no reason, the NFL has come back to a basic truth:

On any given Sunday, you can be stumped by the results.

Already this season, we have seen some logic-defying developments:

The Super Bowl champion Ravens have lost to two former patsies, the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns.

The Washington Redskins started 0-5 and were outscored 144-32, yet they've come back to win three in a row, including a 35-21 rout of the defending NFC champion New York Giants.

The Chicago Bears reached 6-1 with consecutive fourth-quarter comebacks, winning two overtime games on deflected passes that became interceptions and then touchdowns.

The St. Louis Rams pummeled the New York Jets, 34-14, in Week 6, but couldn't hold an 18-point halftime lead a week later and fell to the New Orleans Saints, who lost at home the next week to the Jets.

We've entered the theater of the absurd.

"Crazy things," said Jets general manager Terry Bradway. "We go to Carolina, have four turnovers and win. Marty [Schottenheimer, Redskins coach], 0-5, is ready to be run out of town. Now, he's turned it around.

"I think it's football. That's the way it goes. People talk about parity vs. mediocrity. [But] it's probably more true than ever: On any given Sunday, any team can win. That was evident by the Saints going to St. Louis and beating the Rams up, and we go down there and beat the Saints."

Upsets have become the norm. Comebacks are common. The Bears trailed the San Francisco 49ers by 19 points and Cleveland by 14 and came back to win both games.

Baltimore's losses at Cincinnati, 21-10, and Cleveland, 24-14, raised eyebrows, but merely proved a point for coach Brian Billick.

"I think winning on the road truly is so key with parity now," Billick said. "Teams are so solid, it's hard to go on the road and win. Those are good teams. And they beat us when we were on the road."

Parity may be a dirty word to some in the NFL, but it has leveled the playing field, spawned dramatic one-year franchise turnarounds and produced three different Super Bowl champs the past three years.

Dynasties have disappeared for now, replaced by a more topsy-turvy NFL that gives hope to the have-nots.

"We've been inching toward it with every year," Billick said. "As much as last year marked the arrival of parity, we're seeing it in full blush. And the teams that were bad last year really weren't that bad."

Billick cites the San Diego Chargers as Exhibit A. Without a competent quarterback or a capable running back, the Chargers went a league-worst 1-15 a season ago. In the off-season, they brought in a new general manager (John Butler), acquired a new quarterback (Doug Flutie) and took a running back (LaDainian Tomlinson) in the first round of the draft. Now, they're 5-3 and in position to make a playoff run in the AFC West.

At the halfway point of the season, there are four new division leaders from a year ago (the Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, Bears and Rams). There do not appear to be any dominant teams, however, despite the 6-1 record shared by the Oakland Raiders, Rams and Bears.

Each of those teams has an Achilles' heel. The Rams are dogged by the label of being a finesse team, a tag that seemed to fit rather well when they were roughed up by the Saints in Week 7. The major concern for coach Mike Martz is keeping MVP running back Marshall Faulk and prolific passer Kurt Warner healthy. And in the Rams' fastbreak offense, which often sends out five receivers, Warner is definitely at risk.

The Bears are young, and the Raiders are old. Chicago's turnaround -- the Bears were 5-11 last season -- is built around a unit that ranks second behind the Ravens in run defense. It's a defense spearheaded by second-year stars Mike Brown and Brian Urlacher and third-year veterans Rosevelt Colvin and Warrick Holdman.

The Raiders have 15 players on the roster 30 or older, 10 of whom start. The window of opportunity is closing on wide receivers Jerry Rice (39) and Tim Brown (35) and quarterback Rich Gannon (35).

"I think everybody has problems," Gannon said recently. "I used to always think that we were the only team that had problems, and you look around and you say, `Well, maybe other teams have problems, too.' I'm not talking about off-the-field problems so much. But every team has issues.

"You look at the Ravens, and that is a team that certainly, in my opinion, will be a playoff team. You look at their defense, and they are playing very, very well. ... The thing that's killed them is the turnovers. They put the ball on the ground and it's cost them a couple of games.

"You look at Chicago, they are a team that's much improved. It seems like they are getting a lot of play out of their defense. ... I think there's a lot of parity in the National Football League right now. I don't know that there's many teams on any given Sunday that are that much better than somebody else."

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