This Saturday begins the best football weekend of the off-season—and, some insist, the best football weekend of the entire year. The NFL Draft is the league's Fountain of Youth, offering the hope, or possibly the illusion, of renewal to fans of all 32 teams. Over two days and more than a dozen broadcast hours, ESPN commentators will fire off a barrage of stats, trivia, analyses, insights and, of course, perennial bromides. Trying to pick the No. 1 cliché is every bit as much of a crapshoot as the draft itself, but you can seldom go wrong guessing "parity."
After all, parity has been the watchword of the NFL for more than a decade. Parity is supposed to be the inevitable result of three driving forces in the league: the salary cap, which has made it difficult for top teams to retain all their talent; the college draft, which gives higher picks and thus, presumably, better talent to the weaker teams; and the "balanced" schedule, which assures that teams in the same division compete against mostly the same opponents. Look at how well it worked last season. Of the dozen playoff teams, four had won their division the previous year. But an equal number—Atlanta, Baltimore, Miami, Philadelphia—had finished the 2007 season in last place.
Still, parity, at least the NFL's special claim to it, is hardly unique to pro football. After all, Major League Baseball, with its mammoth disparities in team payrolls, can make an as-good if not better claim to parity. Since the year 2000, for example, the NFL has seen 13 different teams (or 40.6 percent of its teams) reach the Super Bowl, with two winning multiple championships (the New England Patriots with three titles and the Pittsburgh Steelers with two). Over that same period, Major League Baseball has seen 14 teams (or 46.7 percent) reach the World Series with only one, the Boston Red Sox, winning two championships.
Perhaps those forces working toward parity in the NFL need to be reexamined. Indeed, the conventional wisdom on the draft has already shifted radically. Because the very top draft picks command obscenely high salaries for unproven talent, they are not considered quite as desirable as they once were and, in fact, can be burdensome on the salary cap. Low first-round picks or second- and third-round picks may turn out to deliver as much talent or, if not, at least more bang for the buck.
Consider this year's lesson in draft and salary-cap management from the Patriots, the premier franchise of the decade. Pats fans were disappointed when the Pats traded quarterback Matt Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel to the Kansas City Chiefs yet came away with only a second-round pick. But the deal also allowed New England to lop almost $20 million off its salary-cap number. Had the team acquired the Chiefs' first pick, the third selection in the draft, much of the cap savings would wind up being spent on one untested rookie. Sure, you may snare a Matt Ryan with that pick, as the Atlanta Falcons did last year. But for every Ryan-like success story, there's a bust (or two or three) like quarterback Vince Young, taken by Tennessee with the third pick two years earlier.
Instead, New England used the savings to sign a host of proven veterans at much lower prices, including a former All-Pro running back (Fred Taylor); a speedy receiver with almost 11,000 career yards in receptions (Joey Galloway), a solid pair of cornerbacks (Shawn Springs, Leigh Bodden), and veteran backups at linebacker and tight end (Tully Banta-Cain, Chris Baker).
Neither the owners nor the union are enamored of seeing disproportionate amounts spent on rookies at the expense of veterans, so that disparity should be addressed in future labor negotiations. And with the owners having opted out of the collective bargaining agreement a year ago, this season could be the last played with a salary cap. That would leave only the "balanced" schedule to assure that parity remains a centerpiece of the NFL's future. However, fans that prefer parity to dynasty can rest easy. It is the schedule that is the essential component in those rapid NFL turnarounds.
Not the balanced schedule, but the critical imbalances within it. Each team plays two games, or 12.5 percent of its schedule, against different teams than its division rivals. (And if the commissioner has his way and expands the season to 17 games, it may soon be three games against different teams.) Given that six of the eight NFL divisions were decided by a game or less, that is hardly an insignificant difference. Especially when last year's fourth-place teams play their two " different" games against considerably weaker opponents.
That bodes especially well for teams like the Washington Redskins and the New Orleans Saints, both of which finished with 8–8 records, but in last place in strong divisions. Both will be rewarded this season when they play their two "different" games against a pair of true doormats, the Lions and the Rams, which were a combined 2–30 last year.
The other imbalance in the schedule is, of course, that each division is matched with a different division in both the NFC and AFC. And there are huge disparities between them. The two divisions which featured the biggest 2008 turnarounds, the NFC South (40–24) and the AFC East (38–26) were not so coincidentally the two that drew both the NFC West (22–42) and the AFC West (23–41), the weakest divisions in the league. That again augurs well for the Redskins; the team has the luxury this season of four games against an AFC West that did not produce a single winning team last year.
The schedule suggests that Washington and New Orleans are best positioned to emerge as the sleeper team of the 2009 season. Of course, Las Vegas never sleeps, which may explain why bookmakers haven't cast either the Redskins or the Saints as genuine long shots. Rather, Washington will kick off the season at similar odds to 2009 playoff teams like Atlanta and Miami while New Orleans is considered to have as good or possibly even a better chance to win Super Bowl XLIV as last year's almost-champion Cardinals.
So check out the weekend's draft for all those fun fantasies of the future. But check out the NFL schedule, released just last week, for a far better indication of how your favorite team will fare this season.