‘Any given Sunday.” ‘It’s why they play the game.” These and other clichs have become parts of the NFL vernacular, but never more so than during this 2008 season. Through the first six weeks of the season, the NFL fan base has been treated to more upsets and late-game victories than a March Madness tournament.
The excitement and popularity of the NFL stems from a single word: parity. The gap from top to bottom in the NFL is shrinking by the day. From season to season and even week to week, almost every team feels like it has the chance to be this year’s Giants.
In 2007, the Patriots, Colts and Chargers were hands down the cream of the crop in the AFC. Likewise, in the NFC, it was the Cowboys and Packers (until the Giants’ improbable run through the playoffs). Through week six this year, the Pats (3-2), Colts (3-2), Chargers (3-3), Cowboys (4-2) and Packers (3-3) are mired in mediocrity with three of the five teams (Pats, Cowboys and Packers) starting a different quarterback this coming weekend than the pro bowler they did all of last season.
The Tennessee Titans (5-0) who finished third in the AFC South last year and beat out the Browns in a tiebreaker for the final Wild Card spot are the only undefeated team in the league.
In 2007, six teams had four wins or less; the Dolphins, Rams, Falcons, Jets, Raiders and Chiefs combined for an abysmal 20-76. So far in 2008, those six teams are a combined 12-19 nearly twice as strong a winning percentage. If you take away the Raiders, Chiefs and Rams all of which are 1-4 and currently seem incapable of running successful organizations the Dolphins, Falcons and Jets are a combined 9-7, equaling their win total from last season when they went 9-39. It’s not just the teams, but the players that fluctuate as well. Every week it seems we see a new player or a new team step up to the forefront of our country’s most popular sports league.
The NFL quarterback is one of the most recognizable roles in America and arguably the most important position in sports. Nothing exemplifies the folly of the NFL season like the uncertainty at QB throughout the league. There is no perfectly accurate way to assess a quarterback, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that passer rating equals QB efficiency.
Out of the top 10 quarterbacks in passer rating at the end of last season, only four are currently in the top 10. Ben Roethlisberger finished second behind Tom Brady and is now ranked ninth. Tony Romo finished fifth last year and is ranked third, but a broken finger will keep him on the sidelines for at least a month.
The third quarterback is Brett Favre, who finished sixth and is now ranked fourth, but, of course, playing for the Jets, not the Packers. And finally, the fourth is Kurt Warner yes, Kurt Warner who isn’t quite leading the ‘greatest show on turf,” but has the Cardinals (4-2) in first place in the NFC West and has gone from the 10th most efficient quarterback in the NFL to the fifth.
New faces are starting to creep up behind center as well. For the Broncos, Jay Cutler is making a name for himself. Jason Campbell is keeping the Redskins afloat in the league’s toughest division. Matt Ryan the Falcons’ rookie from Boston College and the top pick in last spring’s NFL Draft is making people in Atlanta forget about federal inmate Vick (or at least stop thinking about him for a while). Even the Bears have found a QB in Kyle Orton, the fourth year man from Purdue who has seemingly ended (finally) the Rex Grossman experiment.
A February 2008 Harris Poll showed that 30 percent of Americans consider football their favorite sport, while baseball was next popular at 15 percent. The balance of power in the NFL is unmistakably the main reason for the league’s popularity. Sure, baseball has its underdogs and Cinderella stories none better than the Tampa Bay Rays but too many franchises seem perpetually buried at the league’s rock bottom. It is the NFL that best embodies hope. Every Labor Day, the fans of all 32 teams in the league are convinced that this is the year their team can win it all. Since 2005 my first year at UR 21 of the 32 NFL teams have made the playoffs; if that doesn’t spell parity, than I don’t know what does.
Starr’s column appears weekly. Starr is a member of the class of 2009.