Perils of NFL Parity: Can 49ers Flourish with Tougher Schedule in 2012?

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Perils of NFL Parity: Can 49ers Flourish with Tougher Schedule in 2012?
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The NFL hasn’t yet released the dates of next season’s games, but opponents at home and away were announced last month.

The San Francisco 49ers will have a few tough matches coming up.

On the road, the 49ers will find themselves in Green Bay, New Orleans and New England, among other locations. At home, the Niners will also play the NFL Champion New York Giants, as well as the resurgent Detroit Lions.

Such are the rewards of winning the NFC West and blasting deep into the NFC playoffs.

In accordance with the NFL’s goal to preserve parity, the 49ers caught a break this year. They were a vastly improved team that benefited in part from a relatively soft schedule as a result of their 6-10 finish the year before.

Not so this time. The 49ers won’t be sneaking up on anybody, and they’ll have to prove themselves against the best in the business.

They’ll get a couple of breathers, against the Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills, as well as two NFC West games against the woeful St. Louis Rams.

To keep things fair within the division, every NFC West team will play the Lions, the Green Bay Packers and the New England Patriots. I’m sure the other members of the division are lining up to thank the 49ers even as I type these words.

Two questions about parity: First, does it work, and, second, is it good for teams individually and the league as a whole?

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Four enterprising students in the statistics department at Purdue University have offered an answer to the first question, and their presentation is available on the Web. It contains literally way too much Greek for a math-impaired person like me, but if you know something about the formal study of statistics, check it out.

The students examined the two main aspects of parity—adjusting strength of schedule on the basis of teams’ win-loss records, and ordering the draft so that the worst team picks first and the best, last.

They concluded that “perfect parity does not exist in the NFL,” but said also that “on the whole, the NFL does a good job of ensuring that every team performs about equally in the long run.”

In other words, for the most part, parity works.

Now, to the second question: Is it good for the league and individual teams like the 49ers?

For that, I turn to a captivating article by Harvey Araton, published last November in the New York Times. The piece is mainly about the NBA, but makes an interesting point about the difference in the ways the NBA and NFL market themselves.

The NBA, Araton observes (accurately, I believe), relies on stars and dynasties such as the Los Angeles Lakers. On the other hand, the NFL, he writes, “is seldom marketed as a game of stars or even a showdown of cities. It is primarily about Cowboys and Giants, Steelers and Ravens.”

By emphasizing traditional rivalries (or even more recent ones), and doing its best to keep the rivals pretty evenly matched, the NFL maintains both the fans’ interest and their hopes that their teams will prevail.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Parity also helps keep the divisional races close, which sustains the fans’ interest deep into the season, throughout the league. Winning a division with a 9-7 record (or even 8-8, in the case of the Denver Broncos this year) may be a yawner for a lot of people, but it’s exciting for fans of the team that ultimately wins.

As evidence, look to the involvement of the Giants and Broncos fans as the season wound down to the final weekend. Look too, towards the engagement of the fans of the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders, two teams that both could have won their division had things turned out just a bit differently.

In Oakland, after years of poor attendance, the Raiders filled the stadium several times. It wasn’t because they were running away with the division, as the 49ers were across the bay. It was because, in an era of parity, the late Al Davis’ mantra, “Just win, baby,” could realistically be altered to, “Just win enough.”

There are those who complain “parity” is a synonym for “mediocrity.” I disagree. It means the best teams play the best competitors, and the lesser teams have a chance to do something besides 2-14.

It does mean that dynasties are more difficult to create and maintain. Even so, well-run teams such as the Patriots and Packers have recently been consistent winners, even against top competition.

Will next year’s parity-driven schedule be good for the 49ers? I believe it will, for three reasons.

First, the Niners shouldn’t be damaged in the divisional race because everyone will play Detroit, Green Bay and New England, as well as the other divisional teams. So it’s not as if the 49ers are being singled out for tough games while everyone else gets a vacation. The tougher schedule (and perhaps more losses) could hurt the 49ers, however, in their quest for home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Second, by facing excellent competition during the regular season, the 49ers will be able to gauge their strengths and weaknesses before the playoffs and adjust as necessary.

Finally—and this is for the fans—the 49ers should have more than a few highly entertaining games. When dates are announced, fans will want to circle them on their calendars. The 49ers against the Packers, Patriots and Giants will all be games to watch, and, with a bit of luck, perhaps games to remember, as well.

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