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Steelers and Redskins: Two Faces of Parity

The current 2012 season seems to have provided fresh fodder for those who believe the NFL’s efforts at Parity means it wants as many teams to be 8-8 as possible.

Larry French

One of the guys who commute with me on a regular basis was bemoaning the current plight of his Arizona Cardinals. He was worried that they could end up 8-8 because of their ineffectual quarterbacks, a weak offensive line and poor play calling. He finished his pity session by summing it up as "…well, that’s what you get with Parity in the NFL these days".

Numerous publications and blog sites have published articles decrying Parity as the reason for the weak AFC this season, blaming Parity for such facts as that after Week 7 only three AFC teams have winning records as compared to the NFC where eight teams are above .500.

This isn’t a new phenomenon however. Sports Illustrated columnist Frank Deford wrote a column in 1999 in which he lamented: "…If only Pete [Rozelle] were still alive as the new NFL season approaches, he would be truly thrilled. Parity reigns! Indeed, such is parity in the NFL now that, probably, this season, no team is good enough to win the Super Bowl." (emphasis added)

The main components of Parity as it truly exists today in the NFL are as follows:

1936 – The NFL implements the draft system, as proposed by Philadelphia Eagles owner Bert Bell, allowing teams with poorer performance on the field to pick new talent ahead of more successful teams. Bell is attributed as being the first to utter the oft quoted (and truncated) line: "[o]n any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team.[i]

1960 – The NFL implements the television revenue sharing plan as proposed by Commissioner Pete Rozelle (1960-1989), allowing all teams to share equally in the revenues generated by the NFL as a whole, regardless of the size of any team’s individual market.

1994 – The NFL adopts the salary cap, placing an equal limit on the payroll of all teams, thus preventing large market or more profitably run teams from outspending smaller market or more poorly run teams for talent. The cap was adopted as a response by the owners to the players’ winning free agency rights. This was the NFL’s answer to avoid the trap Major League Baseball found itself in with large market teams spending prolifically for highly sought players.

Under these three components, the NFL has grown from an "also-ran" sport to college football up until the mid-1960’s to the $9 Billion industry it is today.

Thus Parity was meant to level the playing field across the entire league for individual owners to field and operate a team that could remain viable as an ongoing member of the league, if the owner was successful in the business of running his business. Parity has nothing to do with the day-to-day performance of the team on the field.

The 2011 CBA has modified the salary cap and television revenue sharing provisions, but the draft system remains relatively the same. Therefore the teams that lose the most get the highest draft picks, all the current teams are operating under the same payroll rules, and all teams share equally in the $4 Billion in television revenue the NFL enjoys.

So where in any of these three components of Parity, is the excuse for the woe begotten state of any individual team today? The answer lies within the corollary of the reason for Parity: Whereas the league is successful if the owners are successful in the business of running their business, a team is successful if the team is successful in the running of the team.

Let’s compare the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Washington Redskins for possible answers.

Under Bert Bell’s draft system, since 1990:

- the Steelers have had one top ten draft pick, and have drafted 11 quarterbacks.

- the Washington Redskins have had 11 top ten draft picks, including eight of the eleven being picks #2 thru #5, and have drafted 13 quarterbacks.

Under Pete Rozelle’s revenue sharing system:

- in 2011, the Steelers and Redskins’ had equal shares of the television revenue totaling (approximately) $125 million despite the Steelers being in the 22nd largest metropolitan area, and the 23rd largest television market as compared to the Redskins being in the seventh largest metropolitan area, and the eighth largest television market.

Under the current Salary Cap rules:

In 2011 the Steelers and the Redskins were limited to a player payroll of $120 million; likewise each team was held to the same cap as the other in the preceding year going back to the implementation of the salary cap.

So, if since 1990 each team receives the same amount of money from television as the other, and (as of 1994) has an equal amount of money to spend on players, and the Washington Redskins have had ten more top-ten picks than the Steelers…

…why do the Steelers have the highest winning percentage since 1990 at .627, going to four Super Bowls, winning two while the Redskins’ winning percentage ranks far below in 24th place at .456, and they’ve been to only one Super Bowl, back in 1990?

It’s all in how the teams are run.

The Steelers have had the same majority owner and two head coaches since 1990.

The Redskins have had two owners and 8 head coaches since 1990.

Between 1993 and 2010, the Steelers have signed 50 free agents, with 26% never having started a game…

…while the Redskins signed 92 free agents, with 36% never having started a game.[ii]

(The average NFL team has signed 67 free agents since 1993.)

An NFL team is defined in part by the culture of the team itself; that culture is defined in turn by how the team is run. Owners of successful NFL teams recognize that they are not football experts, so they hire people who are, and as successful business owners are wont to do, they take the long term view of success and let these football experts do the job they were hired to do. The Rooney family is a prime example of this type of owner, as is the Mara family who owns the Giants; the Steelers and the Giants are two of the top three teams since 1990 in terms of Super Bowl appearances.

On the other hand, there are owners that believe they can run a football team like they ran the corporations that made them rich enough to buy their team, like Jerry Jones or Dan Snyder. Owners like Snyder demand results on a short term (eight head coaches in 13 years), wring profits out of every possible venture (exorbitant prices for parking), ignore the rights of their consumers (banning fans’ signs from the stadium[iii]), or even worse, sue unemployed season ticket holders for failure to fulfill their seat contracts, and making them pay for multiple years worth of tickets.[iv]

None of these actions have anything to do with the business operations of the NFL itself, and thus nothing to do with the NFL’s concept of Parity. These are the actions of a specific team and how it is run. These are the actions of a specific owner, and how such actions impact the day-to-day operations of the organization itself, not the NFL.

As such, the stark contrast between how teams like the Steelers and the Redskins are operated, the contrast between the teams’ culture, is a far more accurate explanation for the success or failure of a football team than is Parity.

Parity exists, and it’s working fine. Just don’t blame Pete Rozelle if your team can’t be competitive in spite of it.

[i] Bell's implementation of the draft did not show immediate results,[190] but it was "the single greatest contributor to the [league]'s prosperity" in its first eighty-four years.[191] His original version of the draft was later ruled unconstitutional,[192] but his anchoring of the success of the league to competitive balance has been "hailed by contemporaries and sports historians".[193] Bell had often said, "[o]n any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team."[194]