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The Rampant Mediocrity Of The NFL

The Cowboys are stuck at .500 once again. But they are far from the only team in the league that is average or worse, and may be representative of a bigger trend.

Is a 4-4 Dallas team exactly what Goodell prefers?
Is a 4-4 Dallas team exactly what Goodell prefers?
Hannah Foslien

So what could be worse for the Dallas Cowboys that finding themselves at the halfway point of their season at 4-4?

Well, they could have a sub .500 record, as do sixteen of the NFL's teams.

For a long time, the apparent goal of the league has been to achieve parity, where the difference between teams in terms of talent and achievement was minimal. The objective seems to be games where the outcome is unpredictable and the old adage of "any given Sunday, any team can beat any other team" is valid. They want as many teams still having a chance to make the playoffs as late in the season as possible.

It is all about money. Televisions ratings and game attendance both improve when the contests matter. Look at how the last game of the season for the Dallas Cowboys the past two years have drawn viewers and bodies to the stadium. Neither featured teams that were having great seasons. But both times, the outcome of the game determined who would represent the NFC East in the playoffs. Suspense and drama were built in, and the games drew eyeballs in droves. The networks loved it, and so did the team owners. Jerry Jones never objects to a little extra revenue.

Dominant teams who run away with their divisions are bad for the league, at least from the perspective of accounting. Close games in close races are the preferred product the league wants. Dallas' 4-4 record is upsetting to the fans, but the guys in the expensive suits who run the game would absolutely be ecstatic if ever team in the league was at or near that record right now, because it would mean every team still had a chance, and their fans would be glued to their TV screen elevating the ad rates for the broadcasts, or sitting in sold out stadiums downing hugely overpriced food and beverages.

The NFC East is looked upon as a bit of a laughingstock by the media and fans in general, but it actually represents the best case scenario for the NFL. Only two games separate first place from last, and it is still technically anybody's division to win (or, perhaps this year, not lose). This is what the league lusts for. Parity first and foremost.

Poster child for this desire for the outcome of games to be largely unpredictable, almost to the point of random chance, is the Kansas City Chiefs. In 2012, they were dead last in the league. They finished with a miserable 2-14 record, and they did not even have Andrew Luck to go into the tank for. One Andy Reid later, they sit at 8-0, the last undefeated team, and as close to a lock for a playoff spot as can be at this point in the season, with largely the same personnel that could barely win anything last year.

In the long run, the NFL would love to have 32 Kansas City franchises. Teams that would go from cellar dwelling to the heights, preferably as a repeating cycle. Get to the playoffs regularly to keep your own fan base engaged and shelling out money for tickets and merchandise, but fall out of the picture every year or two to allow other teams to do the same. Maximize profits for all.

Of course, things don't always work as intended, and the real results this year seem to be a bunch of teams that are struggling with very little excellence at the top. The AFC only has seven teams with four or more wins. That means the other nine have fan bases that may already be losing heart, especially if they see the division leader already with six or more wins. They can do the math, and realize that their chances may already be fading away. Things only work if the divisions are fairly close top to bottom, like the NFC East and AFC East are right now. Otherwise, the rumored fans of teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers may become even more mythological than they already are. Meanwhile, teams like the New England Patriots insist on making trip after trip to the playoffs, selfishly denying other teams their chance to provide some excitement to their fans.

In truth, there already seems to be a decline of the persistently good franchises like the Patriots, as the combined pressure of the way the draft is designed and the salary cap put more and more of a squeeze on the talent levels of those teams who do succeed over any extended period.

Dallas, meanwhile, has the good fortune of being in the weakest of the divisions, where being average may be all it takes to walk away with a playoff berth. Hopefully, they will also find a way to actually be competitive in the postseason, but after a three year drought, just getting there would represent some small progress and inspire a little hope in that all important group of consumers known as fans. And it would fall right in line with the league's desire to see as many teams make it into the playoffs over a span of years as possible.

So the Cowboys, with their average record and repeated failure to take advantage of chances to open up some space in the division, are just what the league wants. The suits who run things would be more pleased if they could have all the divisions so tight, even if it meant that there was an increased chance of teams with better records than one or two of the division winners having to sit out the playoffs. It really isn't about how good the football is. Just how many people they can entice into watching it.


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