Hope Sells: NFL Bottom Feeders Wish Upon a Star

Seattle’s Oct. 23 loss to Cleveland made it seem as if the teams were playing underwater, or maybe like the football weighed fifty pounds.

Baseball’s World Series the previous night produced more offense, as the St. Louis Cardinals waxed the Texas Rangers, 16-7. That’s good reason for the Seahawks and Browns to both feel embarrassed. Maybe Pete Carroll should give Albert Pujols a ring.

Seattle may have little chance at redemption on Oct. 30, when the team hosts the Bengals. Cincy is a surprising 4-2, with a top-five defense. The Seahawk starting QB, whether Charlie Whitehurst or Tarvaris Jackson, will have his hands full.

A third of the 2011 NFL campaign is in the history books as of this writing. Football observers are now confident they can take a slice of each team, and form a solid opinion. I may not know you, but I know your cut, as the saying goes.

Three-quarters of the NFC West (or is it NFC Worst?) is already out of the playoff running, for all practical purposes, at 2-4 or worse. Minnesota, Miami, Denver, and Peyton Manning-less Indianapolis also will likely finish under .500.

Much is made of the fact that less than a dozen NBA teams have won the title since 1980. The major leagues have had twice as many champions in that time, including five by the New York Yankees. The NFL lies somewhere in between. When the same teams win too often, some fans resent that success and wish for more balance.

On the flipside, when a handful of teams are hapless almost halfway through the year, critics pop out of the woodwork to scream about… guess what? The lack of parity. Fans, writers and talking heads overreact to every result in the twenty-first century–there is an overload of information, and some of us believe that crunching lots of statistics makes us experts. The truth is that parity, or the lack of it, can be supported by twisting those numbers to fit the argument.

Critics begin disparaging not only the horrific play of those basement teams, but the leagues themselves. They discuss “solutions” like a restructuring of contracts, salary caps, and team contraction. Are we never happy?

Football teams like Seattle, St. Louis, and Arizona are not only pulling up lame, but look positively inept at times. Yet the NFL remains fairly bulletproof, as evidenced by the emotional rebound of fans and media after summer’s lockout.

The heralded parity of the National Football League is a lie. Check the Super Bowl contestants, and except for the occasional Tampa or Atlanta, you’ll see the same teams appearing. This year’s no different. Only about seven or eight teams in ’11 have a real chance of winning the Super Bowl. That’s true in most years, and in all three major sports.

Criticism over the NFL or NBA’s dynasties misses the point: the constant call for all pro entities to be balanced and equal ignores the unique nature of each league.

The NFL’s so-called “Suck for Luck” marathon is well underway as Halloween approaches. Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, who would have been the top player drafted last year, decided to return to school for his senior season. He’s the Heisman frontrunner, and every sports expert’s choice for the Next Big Thing on the professional gridiron–the safest bet for greatness since John Elway, if you believe the fortune tellers.

Tongue-in-cheek talking heads on sports radio and TV say things like, No coach or player wants to tank the season just to get Luck, har-har-har, but maybe it’s okay for the fans of a terrible team to wish for that #1 2012 pick.

In the eyes of some people, praying for your team to go 0-16 doesn’t make you a bad fan… it means you are willing to lose a few battles to win the war. This mindset is on par with holding a great hand in high-stakes poker: the odds are with you, but it’s still gambling.

For the moment, shelve the reality that there’s no sure thing, although the Cardinal QB has been painted as a messiah. (Remember the much-maligned Ryan Leaf?) As good as Luck may become, he can’t be enjoying the cape of high expectations already draped across his shoulders.

Every season reveals a handful of franchises that swiftly play themselves out of contention. The better teams are elite in cycles, then fade and are replaced. The exceptions are the Yankees, Lakers, Steelers, and Celtics of the sports universe, who have cyclical excellence.

It’s like the difference between Earth’s orbit and Neptune’s–some planets stay relatively warm, while others remain distant year after year except for the rare spot of brilliance. Why do historically-great franchises stay near the top for decades? Because of solid coaching, management and ownership. All of the manipulation in the world can’t create parity and balance in organizations where those elements don’t exist.

Just ask any Cincinnati Bengal player of the last decade.