“I think there’s a lot of bad football from what I watch. Poor quality of football, that’s what I see.” (Tom Brady quoted by NFL.com this week)
The reason why the Pittsburgh Steelers currently find themselves only one game out of first place in the AFC North has considerably less to do with their own play than with the declining level of play across the NFL. Whatever else you might think about Tom Brady, you would probably admit he knows a thing or two about the difference between the good and bad in football. So when a marquee player like Brady says the league is falling down, it ought to at least attract some attention.
With roughly one quarter of the 2022 NFL season in the books, and excluding this week’s games, the Philadelphia Eagles are the only undefeated NFL team at 4-0. Fifteen teams currently share 2-2 records, including the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams, the runner-up Bengals and Brady’s Tampa Bay Bucs. Incredible as it seems, the Detroit Lions are currently the league’s highest-scoring team after four games with a total of 140 points. But they share the Steelers’ dismal 1-3 record because they’ve surrendered an equally incredible 141 points.
Seventeen NFL teams including Pittsburgh have surrendered more points than they’ve scored so far in 2022. A 2-2 record these days is good enough to be tied for first place in four NFL divisions (AFC North and South; NFC South and West). The defending world champion Rams have surrendered an average of 6 more points per game than they’ve scored so far in 2022. Meanwhile, despite the Indianapolis Colts being the lowest-scoring team in the league (57 points in four games), they had a better record at 1-2-1 after Week 4 than the Steelers (Colts currently are 2-2-1).
In a nutshell, the bell curve formerly depicting NFL teams’ relative quality increasingly has flattened as the years go by. Brady’s recent remarks were in response to a question regarding his feelings about parity in the league. The evidence is compelling that the league’s drive for parity has produced a substantial uptick in the number of barely watchable games. If you find Brady’s assessment overly harsh, then perhaps you missed Thursday night’s 12-9 snooze-fest between the Broncos and Colts.
But that’s an issue which the league must tackle if it so chooses. From the viewpoint of a struggling, transitional team like the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers, it can’t be bad news that more teams currently are playing down to their level — even teams which in recent years had been considered Super Bowl favorites.
Thus, the Steelers find themselves in a position where just a few well-placed tweaks could have a very positive effect. Should Kenny Pickett continue to look like the franchise QB Pittsburgh needs, and if T.J. Watt and a few other injured players return to the lineup, you never know where things might lead. After all, how many NFL pundits projected the Cincinnati Bengals as a Super Bowl team at the beginning of last season?
By mandating parity, the NFL clearly intended to give every Cinderella team a chance to attend the gala ball. But unfortunately, at the stroke of midnight — otherwise known as the offseason — the fine garments of Super Bowl teams more frequently are seen these days turning back into rags as key players take their business elsewhere.
In these circumstances, it should come as no surprise that NFL owners and head coaches increasingly look primarily for short-term returns on their investments. Tom Brady leaves New England and brings Tampa Bay and Bruce Arians a Super Bowl trophy. Matthew Stafford exits Motor City after a career of futility and delivers what looks increasingly like a one-shot dose of glory to the long-suffering Rams organization. A tweak here and there magically transforms an NFL doormat into a contender.
While this general trend is hard to swallow for many fans old enough to remember the glory days of the Steel Curtain, paying a higher price for a less satisfying product unfortunately aligns with the dominant current in our world today. Tom Brady has simply confirmed this unwelcome but increasingly obvious reality which the NFL would prefer to sweep under the rug.