Is Baseball Eclipsing Football in Parity?

The Seattle Seahawks, the NFL
champions of 2013, feel like underdogs. After all, the city hasn’t
celebrated a pro sports title since 1979 and the football franchise
had never hoisted the Lombardi Trophy before. But in reality, the
Seahawks winning Super Bowl XLVIII hardly should have come as a
surprise to anyone following football this season, continuing a
recent trend in the NFL of teams building towards the pinnacle rather
than finding overnight success.

Seattle entered 2013 as one of the NFC
favorites coming off an 11-5 season in which rookie quarterback
Russell Wilson far exceeded his status as a third-round draft pick.
In winning it all this year, the Seahawks followed last year’s Ravens
– who had fallen in the AFC title game in 2011 – to become the
first consecutive champs that won playoff games the previous year
since the 2004 Patriots and 2005 Steelers. In fact, prior to the
Ravens, the Steelers were the last Super Bowl winning team period to
have won at least one playoff game the previous season.

But is that statistic alone – one
that stretched further back in that the aforementioned Patriots and
Steelers teams were the only teams from 1999-2011 that won playoff
games the previous year – enough to say that competitive balance is
alive and well in football? It suddenly seems like ages ago that fans
were treated to such Cinderella stories as the Rams, Ravens and
Patriots – because those happened right around the turn of the
century and basically haven’t occurred since. The 2001 Patriots, 5-11
in 2000 while a fourth-string rookie named Tom Brady rode the bench
all season, are still the last team to win football’s biggest prize
coming off of a losing season.

If you dare to look ahead to whether
your underachieving team has a chance in 2014, consider this: every
single Super Bowl participant in the past decade went at least 8-8
the year before (sorry, Giants fans, even you may not be immune to
this after a sub par 7-9 campaign). The last team to carry a losing
record over from one year into a Super season was the 2003 Carolina
Panthers, who went from 1-15 to 2001 to 7-9 in 2002 before making the
leap under the Ragin’ Cajun, Jake Delhomme. That epic game, Super
Bowl XXXVIII, also happened to be the last one featuring two teams
that missed the playoffs the year before (yes, the Patriots actually
missed the playoffs in 2002 even with Brady playing a full season).

the NFL often sees about half of its playoff teams from one year miss
the field the following year (seven of the 12 teams in this year’s
tournament qualified in 2012 as well), but we seem to be drifting way
from the days of the true surprise team rising from the ashes. As
wild a concept as this seemed just a few years ago, Major League
Baseball may be experiencing a more enjoyable era of competitive balance.

the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series hardly comes as a
surprise to anyone. But this was a team coming off one of its most
miserable seasons ever, a 69-93 slate of despair that had fans
wondering if just making the playoffs was a pipe dream. And in
winning their third title in 10 years, the Sox added to a recent
ledger that makes them the eighth team in nine years to win the
Series coming off of a non-playoff year, with the 2008 Phillies being
the lone exception. (Side note: given this stat, the 2014 Yankees
should now be an even trendier pick when you consider how dominant
they were after their last non-playoff year in 2009 when they won
their most recent world championship.)

Pittsburgh Pirates broke a four-century-old playoff drought in 2013
(okay, it was actually only 20 years), and the Cleveland Indians
returned to the postseason for the first time in six years by turning
around a 68-94 flop into a 92-70 wild card berth. Sure, by the end of
the day it was business as usual, Cardinals and Red Sox for the
second time in a decade and both No. 1 seeds (for the first time
since 1999 no less), but the Tampa Bay Rays’ annual AL East playoff
push with a miniscule payroll and the sudden ascension of the Kansas
City Royals, not to mention the once-long-suffering San Francisco
baseball fanbase enjoying two Giants titles in a three-year span, has
baseball abuzz with parity once again. Even for some of the game’s
moribund franchises, hope springs eternal.

some of the NFL’s predictability stems from the game’s propensity for
being a quarterback-driven league and the fact that we are far less
likely to see a Trent Dilfer- or even a Brad Johnson-led team with a
Super Bowl when the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Peyton
Manning are out there breaking records left and right. But in
baseball, having a team with a deep starting rotation and bullpen and
balanced lineup can be a winning formula, even without star talent.
Sure, one could argue the Giants and Red Sox are hardly devoid of
stars, but on paper, neither team’s roster would have seemed to stack
up to that of the Yankees, Rangers, Cardinals or even the Angels on
paper before their respective championship seasons.

no right or wrong answer, because there are too many variables in
play, but recent history suggests that baseball may have taken the
reins over football in terms of competitive balance. Unless the
Vikings or Browns emerge victorious in Glendale next February, it may
stay that way for at least a little while longer.

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