The Pittsburgh Steelers might have finished the 2022 regular season on the upswing, but the same hardly can be said about the NFL at large. If you’ve followed pro football with any regularity during the past few seasons, you might be finding it increasingly difficult to stay awake throughout many of the contests. Not only has the overall caliber of the sport declined, but nowadays it’s beginning to flirt with the lower limits of acceptability.
If this assessment seems harsh, consider the following facts about the 2022 regular season:
- Only 12 NFL teams comprising 37.5% of the league finished the regular season scoring more points (PF) than they surrendered (PA).
- Only five teams (15%) outscored their opponents by an average of 7 points or more per game.
- The San Francisco 49ers, quarterbacked by Brock Purdy — the last player selected in the 2022 NFL Draft —are the only team in the league that scored an average of 10 points per game more than their opponents.
- Only one of all second-place teams in the NFL’s eight divisions, the 12-5 Dallas Cowboys, posted a season record above .600.
- The Minnesota Vikings, finishing the season at 13-4, somehow managed to compile this impressive record while surrendering three more points than they scored.
Welcome to today’s parity NFL where roughly two thirds of all teams appear to have considerable difficulty getting out of their own way, and where it’s possible for middling teams like the 9-8 Jacksonville Jaguars and 8-9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to claim divisional titles. Not even a Pittsburgh Steelers team in the throes of a substantial rebuild had been eliminated from a playoff berth until the final week of the season. Gradually in recent years, the NFL has become a league where below-the-line performance represents the norm, while losing no longer carries quite the same consequences it has in former years. Whether traditionally or in today’s terms, “below the line” generally describes teams unable during the course of an entire season to outscore their opposition. In the 2022 regular season, this applied to 20 NFL teams.
The NFL’s 24/7 hype machine notwithstanding, statistics confirm a decline in the caliber of play which has become evident even to the casual observer. And because an increasing percentage of all NFL teams fairly can be characterized as mediocre-to-poor, it would scarcely mitigate this situation to realign the league’s existing divisions. Nor does a team’s win/loss record necessarily still represent a reliable index for their comparative strength. Consider for example the Vikings’ anemic PF/PA number or the fact that two of the current playoff teams, the Baltimore Ravens (+35 PF/PA) and Los Angeles Chargers (+7 PF/PA) share few similarities besides their 10-7 season records. By comparison in the AFC, Buffalo is +169 and the Chiefs are +127.
For football fans tuning in each week, the parity trend translates to substantially more close games which generally have become less interesting to watch, at least until the final quarter when outcomes are decided. On the other hand, poorer quality across the league has the effect of keeping playoff hopes alive for more teams at later points in the season. Obviously, this boosts fan interest throughout the nation, but it also increasingly enables weaker teams to gain playoff berths without any realistic prospects to advance (e.g. the Steelers in 2021).
For some of these middling teams, parity presents the opportunity to advance from playoff outcasts to the contender’s circle within a span as short as a year or two. Conversely, as the demise of the L.A. Rams in 2022 illustrated, successful teams also face the possibility of tumbling back down into the middle or bottom of the deck within an equally short time span. Unmistakably, the NFL considers the season-to-season continuity which formerly produced football dynasties as a negative factor which it intends to banish from the sport.
But as any random camera shot of a crowd attending one of today’s NFL games will verify, this overall slippage in quality on the gridiron hasn’t tempered the enthusiasm or indulgence of pro football fans. Nor has the increasing number of up-and-down NFL teams been harmful in the least to the league’s financial picture. But at the same time, it’s important to understand that the pro game we’re watching these days no longer is capable of supporting the same expectations which fans typically held a decade or more ago.
This applies particularly to the perennially high expectations of Steelers Nation which once again are rising on the wings of a season concluding with an unexpected rally. Just as we’ve experienced during the Steelers’ current championship drought— now spanning more than a decade— it should be obvious that the era has ended when an NFL organization could assemble a juggernaut team and consistently dominate the league.
As for the role of coaching, today’s circumstances suggest that winning the Super Bowl— a low-probability goal even under the best circumstances— today has become indistinguishable from an annual roll of the dice. Winning a Lombardi Trophy no longer represents the outcome of a methodical, multi-year building effort. These days, championships often depend on how much a particular team can improve during one or two offseasons, whether via the NFL Draft or by key FA signings. Personnel decisions today increasingly are based on shorter-term objectives. Not surprisingly, quarterbacks have been the pieces most closely associated with the league’s rags-to-riches stories— for example, in Tampa Bay with Tom Brady, in Kansas City with Patrick Mahomes, in Cincinnati with Joe Burrow and, more recently, in the Rams’ 2021 championship season with Matthew Stafford.
But as fans increasingly have discovered, just because your favorite team was on top last year or this year is no guarantee they’ll remain competitive next year. Key players easily can pack their bags for greener pastures. When this happens and the team’s inevitable downturn occurs, fans, pundits and team owners so quick to point their fingers at coaching have missed the larger point. Contemporary changes in the league falling under the rubric of parity actually are the key forces turning former recipes for NFL success upside down. And because team executives have played key roles in the emergence of parity, it often seems they’re using coaches as whipping boys for their own errors.
The inability of many owners to grasp the import of the new reality they’ve helped to create is reflected today in the ridiculous merry-go-round of head coaching changes around the league. This deepening trend recently prompted the NFL’s top brass to warn all 32 teams about the absurd waste of money (currently exceeding $800 million) stemming from front-office decisions to fire head coaches and their staffs before expiration of their contracts.
For example, the Carolina Panthers fired former head coach Matt Rhule with four years remaining on a 7-year, $60 million contract. The Indianapolis Colts fired head coach Frank Reich with four years remaining on his 2021 contract extension paying him $9 million per year. The Tennessee Titans fired their general manager Jon Robinson after he had signed a contract extension last February with four years remaining. Recently, the Arizona Cardinals fired Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury after extending his contract for five years only last spring. The Cardinals reportedly are on the hook for more than $20 million in guaranteed salary to Kingsbury. The New York Giants currently are paying three different head coaches, including two fired coaches Pat Shurmur and Joe Judge, plus their current coach Brian Daboll.
The persistent notion among fans, pundits and NFL owners that “cleaning house” represents the surest path to a turnaround simply is not supported by the records of organizations which have jumped aboard the coaching carousel. If anything, throwing money at a string of short-term coaches has for some time represented the hallmark of perennial NFL losers. Furthermore, when players and their agents see the vast sums of dead money being paid to ex-coaches and GMs, it inclines them to be far less willing to compromise in their own contract negotiations.
But this isn’t to imply the NFL bandwagon won’t continue unabated on its merry way. Fans will continue to watch the games on TV and show up at stadiums wearing their outlandish war paint. But it’s beyond obvious today that we’re no longer dealing with the traditional, pro-football sport where certain minimum standards once were considered inviolable.
While we reveled at our tailgate parties, the NFL gradually morphed into a random creature which frustrates efforts to rationalize it or make predictions. We might choose to blame coaches, referees, players or the front office for the struggles of our home team but, in reality, it’s the NFL rules and financial policies during the past few decades which have fundamentally altered the nature of the sport we love. And because this trend seems to be working out so well in the pocketbook for nearly everyone concerned, it’s likely to not only continue, but to deepen in the future.