NFL's balance can cause quality teams to tumble

Parity makes it tough for champs to repeat

January 12, 2002|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

If the Ravens should stumble in the playoffs, they will have someone to blame besides the quarterback for failing to win back-to-back championships: Bert Bell.

It was Bell, then the owner of a woeful Philadelphia Eagles club, who in 1935 suggested the radical idea of a reverse-order draft. To strengthen weak franchises, the last-place team would pick college players first and the first-place team last. The scheme devised by Bell, who went on to be NFL commissioner, became a first for a professional sports league.

The notion of balancing the quality of teams - and making it hard for champions to repeat - took root.

It flourished under succeeding commissioners, who insisted on broadly sharing revenues, and burst into full bloom in the last decade. That's when the league adopted free agency and other measures that may have made it impossible for teams to establish dynasties. Changes adopted for next season go further.

All of which sweetens the pot for the Ravens. To win another Lombardi Trophy, they will have to defeat adversaries on the field as well as philosophical ones embedded in the NFL's structure.

No other major league does as much as the NFL to equalize its teams, which explains how it has avoided the corrosive imbalance of baseball. Fan interest in perpetually losing baseball franchises has fallen so low the lords of the sport now want to shut down two of them. Similarly, the NBA is still trying to generate interest for franchises eclipsed in the 1990s by the Chicago Bulls.

The NFL has been criticized recently for the way its teams yo-yo in the standings. But the league embraced a philosophy of "competitive parity" for a reason: to engage fans in all 31 (soon to be 32) cities.

Football clubs that have mastered the new system have quickly built winners, even streaking from last place to Super Bowl in a single season as did the St. Louis Rams in 1999. Unfortunately for the Ravens, teams have also found the typical stay on the throne is short.

"I think you can have a run, but to do what the Steelers did in the 1970s and the Packers in the 1960s, to totally dominate, you can't do it anymore," said New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi.

His team has demonstrated the best and worst of the new order. The Giants surged from a 7-9 record in 1999 to post 12 wins the next year and make it to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Ravens. This season, the Giants again slumped to 7-9 and didn't even make the playoffs.

Free agency, coupled with a cap on salaries, makes it nearly impossible to assemble a team of superstars and keep it together year after year, Accorsi said. The days are probably over when a Chuck Noll could draft eight future Hall of Famers out of college and keep enough of them around to win six divisional crowns and four Super Bowls for the Steelers in the 1970s.

While good for the game, the system makes life hard on general managers, Accorsi said.

"It drives us crazy - you'd like to keep everybody, but you can't," he said. Finding room under the salary cap for enough stars to field both a powerful offense and defense is hard enough, but then stocking the bench with backups to replace injured stars is nearly impossible, he said.

Of course all the teams are in the same boat, and that's the whole point. The system is working precisely as designed.

"This is the dream that Pete Rozelle always had for the NFL," said Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago-based financial consulting firm specializing in sports.

Rozelle, who served as NFL commissioner from 1960 to 1989, persuaded team owners, and then Congress, to allow the league to bundle the rights to broadcast its games into multi-team packages and force the networks to bid for them. The result was a gusher of revenue that Rozelle persuaded the team owners to share equally.

Later, he established the league's egalitarian scheduling policy: Teams that do poorly one year face easier opponents the next. Winners get tougher ones.

Rozelle's successor, Paul Tagliabue, negotiated in 1993 a system that imposed a minimum and maximum player payroll for each team. In exchange, the players won the right for veterans to act as free agents and switch teams when they get a better offer.

Club owners sought the salary cap chiefly to prevent costly bidding wars for players. But they also wanted to enhance fan interest by equalizing the teams - a laudable goal that a federal jury ruled in 1992 was permissible under antitrust law if carried out fairly.

"They've legislated themselves into parity ... there really doesn't seem to be any dominant teams," said C. Robert Barnett, a football historian and professor at Marshall University in Huntington, W. Va. "The NFL has always been a fertile seedbed for that idea, from the draft through to the TV deals, and Rozelle really refined the concept."

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