The Designed Rush, Week 9: In Which the Existence of Parity is Foolishly Questioned

It seems this was the week for everyone to wring their hands over the expanding gulf between the haves and the have-nots in the NFL. After all, Week 7's games featured the second-highest margin of victory (20.3) ever and the highest since 1970, the first year of the AFL-NFL merger. And a larger than normal grouping of teams are already impossibly out of contention not even halfway through the season. ↵

↵You know what this means? THE DECK IS CLEARLY STACKED AGAINST THEM! EVERYBODY PANIC! ↵

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↵Sports Illustrated weighed in on it. Blogs are musing whether or not this is the worst NFL season ever. The CBS pregame show even addressed whether parity still exists in the league. ↵

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↵So sayeth the always sagacious Shannon Sharpe: ↵
↵⇥"I think it is gone for the very reason that you said, because there is so much turnover at the head coaching position, because now all of a sudden you get three different head coaches in a 10-year span. Now he might like this quarterback, the guy that came before him likes the quarterback, this guy doesn't so he changes the quarterback. So now you have a new learning curve. He might like a 4-3 defense, where the previous guy liked a 3-4 defense. So now you have another learning curve. So I think parity is gone." ↵
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↵Congrats, Shannon, for somehow talking for 30 seconds and not saying a single thing about parity. What do new head coaches have to do with parity? Are some teams permitted to hire new coaches while others aren't? If not, then how is the playing field uneven? What mysterious external force is making teams hire coaches who want to install new systems? ↵

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↵Back to the larger point -- having several extremely poor showings by a host of teams in one season doesn't mean parity no longer exists. ↵

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↵I suppose the first thing we must define is our supposed ideal for parity. That any team, if its front office signs and drafts the right players and brings in the right coaches, can succeed any given year? Or that every team must finish 8-8, never winning or losing by more than one score? The SI piece seems to argue the latter, but even its reasoning is flawed. ↵

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↵⇥For the first time in NFL history there are three undefeated teams after Week 7 -- Indianapolis, Denver and New Orleans. And all three look virtually unbeatable, dominating opponents week after week in virtually all phases of the game. ↵⇥

↵⇥But at the very same time that the NFL boasts three unbeatens nearly halfway through the season, the league also fields three winless teams -- Tennessee, Tampa and St. Louis. These teams barely look competitive, getting dominated week after week in virtually all phases of the game. ↵⇥

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↵Well, we just saw on Sunday that Denver is hardly unbeatable. ↵

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↵Parity shouldn't mean the league becomes a wide open crapshoot. When teams make the wrong personnel choices, they are deservedly punished with bad seasons. But because of parity, one offseason of effective decision-making can right the ship. Look at the Bengals, a team that has done seemingly everything possible to remain permanently mediocre, yet by key players getting healthy and a rare offseason of canny drafting, they're leading their division. In fact, the only division winners in 2008 presently in first place are the Vikings and Cardinals. Four of them didn't even make the playoffs last year. Meanwhile, the Titans, owners of the best record in the NFL in 2008, just collected their first win on Sunday. That hardly seems a straight continuation of last year's results. ↵

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↵Meanwhile, the big spenders are still spinning their wheels. The Redskins handed out a $100 million long-term deal to the biggest free agent available this year and now sit agonizing in last place. In Major League Baseball, the Yankees are a victory away from essentially buying another World Series title. And it's football that has the parity problem? ↵

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↵Five Games to Watch Even if You Don't Have a Rooting Interest or Fantasy Players Involved ↵

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↵Baltimore at Cincinnati (1 p.m., Sunday) -- ↵

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↵Against the Broncos, Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison finally figured out that constant pressure from Baltimore's stellar front seven will take considerable pressure off their subpar secondary. (It also helped that Josh McDaniels brilliant strategy to counteract these blitzes was a steady diet of receiver screens and runs up the gut. That won't do anything to dispel the building consensus that Mike Nolan deserves a hefty dose of the credit for Denver's success this season.) This is a game loaded with consequence for the AFC North. A Ravens victory reopens the division as a three-horse race. Should the Bengals complete the sweep over Baltimore, the Ravens will most likely be consigned to being a mere Wild Card aspirant. ↵

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↵Arizona at Chicago (1 p.m., Sunday) -- ↵

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↵In his two effective games this season (against Cleveland and Detroit, mind you) Matt Forte has 211 yards and three scores. The other five games combined? 197 yards and no scores. Not the kind of sustained production from a guy who essentially carried the Bears offense last year. That Arizona currently ranks 8th in the NFL against the run (while Detroit is 21st and Cleveland 31st) suggests a lot of pressure is going to fall on Jay Cutler this week to put up points. ↵

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↵Houston at Indianapolis (1 p.m., Sunday) -- ↵

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↵Teams that can grind it out on the ground are the only ones that have been capable of giving the Colts fits. Of course, that has to do with limiting Peyton Manning's possessions, but so far no one's come up with any better ideas. Excluding the 134-yard performance Steven Jackson put on the Colts in a 42-6 Indy rout over the Rams (he's really their only offensive weapon anyway) every time the Colts have allowed a 90-plus yard performance out of a running back, they've won by less than a touchdown. So either Ryan Moats is going to have to continue his surge toward the starting halfback job with the Texans, or Steve Slaton needs to turn in a job-saving effort if Houston wants to have a crack at being the first to upend the Colts. ↵

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↵Dallas at Philadelphia (8:20 p.m., Sunday) -- ↵

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↵There's no more schizophrenic division in the NFL this year than the NFC East. That is, for the exception of the Redskins. They are very uncomplicated about their sucking. However, each of the three teams in the hunt have undertaken sharp turns from dominant to dominated and vice-versa in the first half of the year. The Eagles fell to the Raiders, only to embarrass the Giants at home two weeks later. Dallas, which needed overtime and 250 yards receiving from Miles Austin to get past the hapless Chiefs, have run roughshod over its competition in the two weeks following their bye. The Giants looked as intimidating as a team could through five weeks, only to fold against stronger opposition. No doubt they will experience an uptick at some point the way the Cowboys and the Eagles have. While this contest can potentially figure significantly in the final standings, there are likely to be further shifts to come. ↵

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↵Pittsburgh at Denver (8:30 p.m., Monday) -- ↵

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↵While dinking and dunking didn't have the intended effect of beating the Ravens blitz, it's a strategy that has fared slightly better against the Steelers this season, as offenses have taken advantage of Dick LeBeau's propensity to have his corners positioned far off the line of scrimmage. Seeing the success that Baltimore had playing up, perhaps Pittsburgh will replicate that approach. The Steelers, having allowed a kick return touchdown in each of their last two games, must prevent Eddie Royal from burning him the way he did to San Diego two weeks ago. Another intriguing storyline: The last time Pittsburgh free safety Ryan Clark played in Denver, the effects of exertion in high altitude led to Clark (who possesses a sickle cell trait) having his spleen removed and missing the most of the 2007 season. Though doctors have cleared him to play, teammate Hines Ward is pressing against it. While missing Clark is a blow to the defense, it's not quite the dropoff the Steelers experienced subbing Tyrone Carter (who actually plays very much like Clark) for Troy Polamalu in September and early October. ↵

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↵NFL Player/Figure Tweet of the Week ↵

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↵"I want to thank EVERYBODY who was supporting my comback and stayed positive with me. Its not how you start its how you finish...LightsOut" -- Shawne Merriman, Sunday ↵

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↵Yes, a two-sack game is always nice. Even if it's against the Raiders. At home. And those are your first sacks since 2007. Still, nice. But a rule of thumb to consider: until there's sustained production, you may want to hold off on pronouncing your comeback over. ↵

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↵Truth About Advertising ↵

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↵Is Reebok's ad for its Easytone shoes aimed at me, Mr. Ogling Male? Even though it's a product for women? Because obviously I'm in favor of the repeated shots of a lissome lady's upper thigh and butt. But no. Apparently it's directed at ladies who want similar attention directed at their nether regions. The message is clear: Wear these shoes and you too will receive unwanted attention to your butt! I salute you in your attempts to corner the athletic female exhibitionist market, Reebok. ↵

↵Dispatches from Madden Nation ↵

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↵Earlier in the year, I mentioned Quick Hit Football, an upstart online football program, as being one of the few emerging alternatives to Madden for the football-loving gamer. I got a chance to try the game recently while on the phone with some of the developers. While it bears a unmistakable resemblance to the EA Sports Head Coach games, in that the player only makes playcalls and has no responsibility for the execution of plays, the game has several interactivity features that could bolster the experience for those who miss Head Coach. The quick pace of the game and the fact that it can be accessed anywhere online enable Quick Hit to be an attractive quick break even at the workplace. When I played it, the game was still a few weeks from an official launch, so a few necessary animations were yet to be added, but thus far it shows promise, not necessarily as a full-on competitor for Madden, but at least as another enticing football game experience in a field that's been cut a little thin by lack of competition. ↵

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↵A Delicious Bundle of Gripes ↵

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↵- All this time I spent dumping on the Rams and it's the Bucs who will give 0-16 its closest run this season. Their easiest game left is against Seattle on the road. C'mon guys, I believe in your wretchedness. ↵

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↵- It's a shame that Owen Daniels went down for the year, as the guy was on the cusp of recognition as a top-tier receiving tight end. At the time of his injury Daniels's numbers (40 catches, 519 yards, 5 TDs) compared favorably to the three other tight ends universally regarded as the biggest offensive threats in the league: Jason Witten (37 catches, 348 yards, 1 TD), Tony Gonzalez (33 catches, 393 yards, 3 TDs) and Antonio Gates (37 catches 523 yards, 2 TDs). At least that increases the likelihood of Vernon Davis being recognized for an overdue breakout year (7 TDs). ↵

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↵- Jon Gruden nickname file update! Drew Brees is "The Surgeon," all tight ends are "Jokers" (but not Tony Gonzalez, he's "The Beast"), Reggie Bush is "The Satellite," Mike Bell is "The Hammer" (presumably that's a reference to Mike Hammer of Mickey Spillane fame, right?) and there are probably a few other I missed while banging my head onto my coffee table while trying to listen to the Monday Night Football booth. ↵

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↵- Hey, remember when Bill Simmons complained in 2007 that a winless Miami team trading Chris Chambers to San Diego for draft picks was so one-sided it was probably collusion? Yeah, well, Chambers just got cut in the middle of the season after being generally useless since he joined the Chargers. I guess we can call off the collusion police! ↵

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↵- The Titans successfully lifted a curse of futility placed upon them last December when some of their players stomped a Terrible Towel after beating the Steelers in Week 16. They did so by signing a Terrible Towel that was donated to the Allegheny Valley School (which already receives a portion of the proceeds of all sales of official towels). Incidentally, Alison Lohman's character should have tried the same thing in Drag Me to Hell. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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