The NFL brags about parity. The league boasts of the fairness of its system, including a salary cap that allows the small-market teams to compete on an equal footing with the giants (or Giants) of the NFL. Free agency has never played a huge role in team success.
Such claims are warranted. Among the recent Super Bowl champions were Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Green Bay and New Orleans. None is a major market. The franchises that procure the premier players and coaches, such as the Steelers, Ravens, Patriots and Giants, win consistently. Those that draft poorly don’t — Cleveland and (until recently) Oakland and Detroit are prime examples.
But there is another form of imbalance in the NFL that has become more pronounced in recent years. That is, division imbalance. If the comparative strength of the NFC East and AFC North and the weakness of the NFC West and AFC West are not concerns, perhaps they should be.
It becomes worrisome and downright boring when one team dominates and has a division championship all but wrapped up by midseason, Such was the case last season for San Francisco, which finished 13-3 while second-place Arizona managed just an 8-8 record. Equally dull was the AFC West, won by Denver with a .500 mark while all three other teams remained within one game of the lead. Though the race was close, one couldn’t shake the belief that neither the Broncos nor any other team in the division deserved a playoff berth. Denver did pull a first-round upset, but it no more belonged in the postseason than any 8-8 team in the NFL.
Then there’s the AFC North, arguably the most consistently powerful division in the league. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are perennial Super Bowl contenders while Cincinnati wavers between mediocrity and playoff possibility, If new Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden and stud running back Trent Richardson emerge as forces, the AFC North won’t have any patsies to kick around.
The same can be said about the NFC East,. The Cowboys and Eagles suffered through down years in 2011, but they usually battle with the Giants for supremacy. It’s not unusual for all three teams to finish well over .500.
This is not to claim that realignment is necessary. The imbalance should turn into balance eventually. But the trends are a bit disturbing. The NFL can claim parity in regard to small market vs. big market teams. But division imbalance has been a reality. And the league has lost a bit of its edge because of it.