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You Can't Buy the Super Bowl

In the NFL, as in any other professional or college sports league, there are good teams, mediocre teams, bad teams, and awful teams. That’s not unusual. Every league has their bottom feeders and their blue chips. But the NFL is special . To explain why the NFL is special, we need to take a look at college football. College football is fantastic in almost every way. College football also requires universities to spend amounts of money that would make Tony Montana nervous (and this is the same man who buys himself a travel company, a realty company, Michelle Pfieffer and a tiger ) for any real success. I don’t mean “Meineke Car Care Bowl” success (sorry, Pitt fans), I mean “National Championship/NFL first round draft picks/major TV visibility” success.
And once you have that level of success, its almost impossible to lose. Take it from me, I’m a Michigan grad. Michigan football has been in a state of badness for the last two years. If Michigan were Kent State, that wouldn’t be particularly interesting. It’s only interesting because Michigan is extremely valuable. Forget about the storied past, the Go Blue banner, Bo and Braylon and Charles. The Michigan athletic department spends nearly a million dollars a year on recruiting expenses alone for men’s sports, about half of which goes to football.
The program is worth a considerable amount of money to the university, to ESPN, to ABC, to everyone who has anything to do with the team (including the players - going to a top-tier school almost guarantees at least a chance at a professional career). The Notre Dame “return to glory” wouldn’t be so interesting if the school didn’t have a massive contract with NBC. Only a certain number of schools can afford to play the game, which is why only a certain number of schools figure in the national title race every year.
Take a look at this list: Georgia, Pittsburgh, Oklahoma, Michigan, Florida State, Alabama, Nebraska, Penn State, Notre Dame, North Carolina. Sound familiar? That’s the AP Top Ten from 1980. Give or take Pitt, FSU, and North Carolina, that could be the Top Ten from 1960, 1990, or 2000. Which is why games like Appalachian State - Michigan or Notre Dame - Navy are such shockers. Everything we know tells us who should win these games. There’s a reason why Cincinnati coaches “graduate” to the Big Ten or Notre Dame, and it’s not how beautiful South Bend is (which it’s not. Just saying).
Which brings me to my point: no matter what any one says, the NFL is the closest any league comes to “parity”. “Any Given Sunday” isn’t just a moderately good Jamie Foxx movie, it’s true. Yes, we have expectations for certain teams, but those expectations tend to be far more results-driven than in college football. Ask someone on the street, and they’ll probably tell you that Oklahoma was a national-championship contender this year (they finished 7 and 5). Oklahoma SOUNDS like a national-championship contender. In the NFL, teams circulate from good to bad to good like cigarette smoke in an Upper West Side loft.
Examples? The Oakland Raiders. Today? Generally pathetic, occasionally frisky. But let’s not forget about that Super Bowl berth at the beginning of the decade. Their opponent in that game? Tampa Bay. The New England Patriots killed Pete Carroll’s NFL coaching career, and now control their division with an iron fist year in and year out. Another example? The Cincinnati Bengals. Take it from someone who doesn’t remember the two Super Bowl appearances (I was born in 1987) – I thought that Bengals putridity was as assured as death, taxes, and bad bar bands. All that those high draft picks got us were KaJana Carter and Akili Smith, and don’t look for their busts in the Hall of Fame (unless there’s a Hall of Fame for knee surgeons).
The team has made the playoffs once since I’ve been able to follow them, and that game ended with Carson Palmer tearing his ACL and me lying on my dorm room floor hoping for death. Last year, the team was as terrible as ever. This year? The team could clinch the division after beating the Super Bowl Champion Steelers twice (granted, this same Steelers team has lost to Oakland and Cleveland this year – proving my point). The Bengals success is surprising for one reason only : the Bengals have sucked for twenty years. Sure, there are reasons for why they’ve sucked, but none of those factors have really changed this year.
Mike Brown is still cheap, Marvin Lewis is still coach, and Chad Ochocinco is still loud. Yet somehow, it’s working. Next year the team could be in the Super Bowl, or it could be the Detroit Lions of the AFC North. And you just can’t tell. It’s not about money or draft picks. It’s intangibles that you almost never have in any other league. You can’t “Moneyball” the NFL – and God knows, teams have tried. The Cowboys are the top-spending team in the league, and haven’t gotten anywhere in the playoffs since I was in grade school. The San Diego Chargers, the only real opposition for the Colts this year? 25th in spending (and let’s not forget, this is the same Chargers team that Eli Manning would have rather chewed off an arm than play for a few years ago). So keep the faith, Cleveland fans or Rams fanatics. You could be next to make a splash that no one saw coming. Except maybe me.


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