Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 10, 2019

Winners, And A Whole Lot Of NFL Losers

Perhaps it’s time for a new slogan. The National Football League ascended to its current place as the country’s most popular sport in no small part on the mantra that “on any given Sunday” parity reigned. Thanks to many factors, including the limited impact of any one player in a sport requiring so many participants, the weighted schedule that gives teams with the best records one season a harder path toward duplicating that feat the next, and the salary cap’s ceiling on player contracts, not to mention the vagaries of injuries in the brutal sport, teams with poor records could always hope to turn things around while franchises on top knew their grip on excellence could easily turn slippery.

But with the current season now past it’s halfway mark, this year’s standings are notable for the number of teams sporting records at the extremes. As play began this weekend seven franchises had two or fewer losses, while eight could lay claim to just two or fewer wins. That’s basically half the league displaying either true dominance of considerable ineptitude, which is probably not what commissioner Bert Bell, who led the early growth of the league in the 1950s, had in mind when he first used the famous phrase to describe NFL play.

Some of the teams at the top are occupying familiar positions, which itself calls into question the validity of Bell’s old expression. The defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, the franchise that represents the antithesis of parity, are 8-1. The New Orleans Saints came into the week almost as good at 7-1 and seemed determined to avenge the conference title that was stolen from them by blatantly bad officiating last season. Then there are teams like the Baltimore Ravens, who whipped the Patriots last week behind the dynamic play of second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson, and the 8-0 San Francisco 49ers, who play Monday night, that are back as serious contenders after a few seasons wandering in the football wilderness.

But as is often the case the more interesting stories are at the other end of the standings, among the many teams who now seem to be vying for the right to pick first in next spring’s draft. As with the teams worth rooting for, some of the losers are right where any fan would expect to find them, namely mired deep in the standings. Surely that’s the case in Washington, were fans have largely stopped showing up at FedEx Field. In a city that has become a town full of winners, first with the NHL’s Capitals, then the WNBA’s Mystic and most recently the World Series champion Nationals, owner Dan Snyder is so reviled by fans that his NFL team doesn’t even qualify as a lovable loser.

Then there are the teams that are just having down years (as opposed to lost decades), or so at least their fans hope. With a series of trades just as the season began, the Miami Dolphins stated their clear intention to write off this season. Yet despite their best, or is it worst, efforts the Fish aren’t even in sole possession of last place in the AFC East but are tied with the Jets for coveted title of cellar dweller. Instead the league leader in the race for the bottom, and the right to the next twenty-year-old future franchise quarterback come April, is Cincinnati. The Bengals have yet to break into the win column this season. Even an extended rest for their bye last weekend couldn’t help them, as they continued to make other teams look good, with Baltimore being the most recent beneficiary. Fans everywhere are no doubt looking forward to the next to last week of the regular season, when the Bengals travel to Miami for an epic showdown against the Dolphins.

A foretaste of that was on offer this Sunday in the Meadowlands, where the 1-7 Jets squared off against the 2-7 Giants. If ever there was good reason to avoid the traffic headaches of getting to and from MetLife Stadium every single week of the season, this year’s play by the two franchises that share the field is it. Remarkably enough, Sunday afternoon’s game was reasonably entertaining, though that may just prove that parity can also be found among lesser levels of competition. In the end Jets fans went home happy, while the Giants’ faithful were left to contemplate what might have been, this weekend’s game having been the rare instance in which the Giants were favored.

Still, the best football game of the entire weekend may well have been in Tuscaloosa on Saturday, where LSU withstood a furious rally by host Alabama to win 46-41, putting the Tigers in command of the SEC West and placing in jeopardy the Crimson Tide’s streak of six straight appearances in the College Football Playoff. Watching that game one couldn’t help thinking that one of those high-powered offenses might be more than a match for the shoddy defensive play exhibited by so many of the NFL’s also-rans. One also wondered why, given the superior quality of play, the young men on the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium, in contrast to their NFL brethren, weren’t getting paid.

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