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Mid-season finds many NFL teams falling below the line

The Steelers’ current woes reflect a league in which mediocrity has become rampant.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Halloween brought a reminder that the huge candy bars we Boomer kids gathered back in the 1950s have nowadays shrunken barely to the size of single bites. Those of us old enough to remember heavy bags stuffed with king-sized Hershey bars feel a bit sheepish nowadays handing out these puny treats.

But the NFL seems more proud than ever of their own diminished offerings for the nation’s football fans. The goodies meted out each week to pro football consumers have become notably less satisfying but perhaps the league assumes its rabid fans won’t recognize the difference.

At the midpoint of the 2022 regular season, let’s review the pecking order of the top-11 NFL teams ranked not mainly according to their season records (shown in parentheses) but based on the difference between points scored (PF) and the number surrendered (PA). You’ll notice teams are tied at the #5 and #9 spots:

#1: Buffalo Bills +105 (6-1)

#2: Philadelphia Eagles: +78 (7-0)

#3: Kansas City Chiefs: +51 (5-2)

#4: Dallas Cowboys: +50 (6-2)

#5: Minnesota Vikings: +29 (6-1)

#5: San Francisco 49ers: +29 (4-4)

#6: Baltimore Ravens: +25 (5-3)

#7: Cincinnati Bengals: +24 (4-4)

#8: New York Jets: +17 (5-3)

#9: New England Patriots: +14 (4-4)

#9: Jacksonville Jaguars: +14 (2-6)

Currently, 18 of 32 NFL teams (approximately 56%) are in negative territory comparing PF to PA. But six of the top-11 teams listed above have PF numbers averaging only three points or less per game greater than their opponents. Additionally, notice the difference between the teams tied for #5 and #9. The Vikings are three games ahead of the 49ers in the NFC (albeit in different divisions) and New England is two games ahead of Jacksonville in the AFC (also different divisions).

Four of these top-11 teams currently don’t have winning records. Assuming that an acceptable criterion for mediocrity is either the inability to cumulatively outscore your opponents or failure to post a winning record, then 23 of all NFL teams are mediocre (representing 72% of the league). At the conclusion of Week 8, only 12 teams (about 38% of the league) had winning records including the Tennessee Titans and Los Angeles Chargers — both of which have surrendered more points than they’ve scored. Incredibly, the Titans (-6 PF/PA) currently enjoy a 2-game lead in the AFC South, while the Jaguars share the Steelers’ dismal, 2-6 record despite being +14 in PF/PA.

Reviewing the current NFL standings (not including Week 9 games), the most striking impression is how densely clustered teams are in the segment of the league below .600 in winning percentage. Currently, 21 teams fall into this bracket.

Week 8 featured two noteworthy examples confirming that even teams making huge investments in quarterbacks have no guarantee of reaping commensurate dividends. Consider the Las Vegas Raiders who pay Derek Carr more than $40 million per year (including $65 million guaranteed). Perhaps the sheer weight of this huge sack of cash is what caused Carr to be outplayed by journeyman Andy Dalton in the Saints’ 24-0 blowout win.

Consider also the spotty play of Bengals’ QB Joe Burrow against the Cleveland Browns in Cincinnati’s 32-13 blowout loss on Monday night. As recently as last February, Burrow and Josh Allen were widely considered as favorites to don the next Super Bowl crown. But when he wasn’t scraping himself off of the turf Monday night at the Dawg Pound, Burrow mainly was throwing errant passes and generally failing to sustain drives until garbage time. Currently playing under his original, rookie contract, Burrow is a relative bargain compared to Carr’s goldmine, but it’s widely expected Burrow’s contract extension will be a real whopper (he’ll be a free agent in 2025).

Additionally, senior NFL “fat cats” Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford find themselves bound tightly by golden strands to the masts of their teams’ sinking ships.

But what does all this mean for the Pittsburgh Steelers who currently rank dead last (for Halloween) with a scary -77 PF/PA score? It means the league essentially has turned into a crap-shoot in which the traditional, “any given Sunday” mantra is morphing into every given Sunday. The vast majority of NFL fans today struggles with personnel and coaching questions not unlike those currently bedeviling Steelers Nation.

The midterm NFL report card also casts serious doubt on the common question, “Why don’t the Steelers start doing things more like other teams?” The short answer is that, with the possible exceptions of Buffalo, Philadelphia, Dallas and the Kansas City Chiefs, you’re talking about 28 teams, including 18 with negative PF/PA rankings and 10 more that outscore their opponents by an average of 4 points per game or less. That margin of victory is thin enough to be wiped out by a single turnover. The simple fact is that most other NFL teams aren’t having much more success in navigating their transitions than the Steelers. So why would the 6-time SB champion Rooneys take any tips from them?

To cite only a few examples, consider Bill Belichick’s ongoing struggle to find the right quarterback following Tom Brady’s departure. Consider also the current, precarious circumstances of the defending Super Bowl champion L.A. Rams and runner-up Bengals. Finally, and despite their impressive beatdown of Cincinnati, consider what the ongoing circus in Cleveland will look like with the return of Deshaun Watson and his gigantic closet of skeletons.

It’s been said that misery loves company, and there’s little doubt the Steelers are mired in a miserable condition these days. But quite frankly, the entire NFL today is plagued by mediocrity to an extent perhaps never seen in league history. That’s why network play-by-play broadcasters increasingly find themselves compelled to find good things to say on the air about teams that, by all appearances, simply are bad.

Now that the Steelers find themselves sitting squarely at rock bottom, it’s strangely comforting to know that a big chunk of the entire NFL also is searching for answers. If all else fails, we can always pretend to relish the “fun size” Snickers bar as though it were actually a giant Baby Ruth. But no matter what happens, nothing will stop the Steelers Nation fanatics from donning their scary costumes, flying back and forth across the country to outnumber other cities’ home crowds, or showing up at the stadium already over-served from their Sunday morning tailgate parties.