The NFL’s goal has always been league-wide parity. While there are obviously a few bright and dark examples to the contrary, in general the middle of the league enjoys a good amount of movement and change. In the longer-term, teams that don’t fall victim to the regression-to-the-mean effect of the NFL’s parity mission stick out as those that are managed well (New England and Indianapolis are the most obvious) or managed poorly (Oakland and Kansas City come to mind, but they appear to be turning the corner, so we’ll allow the Lions the dishonor of being our example).

The league encourages parity in a number of ways. The salary cap and draft are both designed to allow all teams an equal field of competition, giving all teams equal access to free agents and access to rookies in reverse priority of their current standing. By and large, this works. Again, there are examples to the contrary on either end of the spectrum, but parity in the NFL at least passes the sniff test.

For Vegas, this is wonderful. Bill Simmons is constantly updating his Gambling Manifesto (now on version 314.2-B I believe) to reflect the ever-changing nature of the NFL. It makes it extremely difficult for the run-of-the-mill gambler, and means any ‘edge’ you can gain in betting is exponentially valuable. In fact, in my Against the Spread picks pool, which is both high stakes ($100 entry) and highly competitive (87 participants, all active), the leader sits at 100-60, a respectable 62.5% win clip. However, the gap between fourth place (89-71, 53.8%) and 86th (69-91, 43.1%) is pretty narrow for a deep pool in Week 12. In a pool where the top seven get paid, the gap between fourth and 45th (the 50.0% cut-off, 80-80) is excruciatingly narrow. One bad week can cost you, and one good week can elevate you much further than you would expect.

Not surprisingly, the same can be said about the real teams playing in the NFL. The graphic below is an NFL Circle of Life (or Circle of Death), showing all 32 teams in a circle. It is arranged such that each team has beaten the team that follows it, in clockwise fashion. That is, Atlanta beat Tampa Bay who beat Cleveland who beat New Orleans, etc, all the way back to Pittsburgh, who beat Atlanta. This is a ridiculous image, and an incredible illustration of parity to wrap your head around.


Furthermore, because of this parity the playoff races are tighter than usual. While some divisions are tight due to ineptitude (The NFC West), no division leader has a cushion of greater than one game. Like I said about the picks pool earlier, one good week or one bad week could legitimately make the difference. Currently seven teams have won seven games, while no team remains winless or has less than two losses. What this means is that 19 teams are currently within a game of a playoff spot.

Obviously, with a larger sample size (16 games instead of 10), you expect to see the spread of win totals to grow, and you wouldn’t expect the modal team to project to win 11.2 games (for example, in 2009 the modal team won 8.5 games, and in 2008 they won nine). While obviously the mean is always tied to eight, the mode and median are free to move around. While the league may appear to be top-heavy with so many teams at 7-3, it is important to recognize the distinction between being loaded at the top to an extreme degree (in 2009, two teams won 13 and one won 14, while one team won just one game, and another won just two), or having teams centered around a strong win total (three on pace for 12.8 right now, and only one team on pace to win less than 3.2).

The point is, despite the strong management efforts of some (to remain good or bad), successful teams tend to fluctuate. Tampa Bay, Oakland, Kansas City, and St. Louis are all examples of teams that were recently laughing stocks and have risen to semi-respectability. On the other side, Dallas, Cincinnati, and Minnesota are all teams that have fallen off after recent success. Meanwhile, the AFC East continues to produce Indianapolis plus three teams that beat up on each other and finish within a game of each other and just out of the playoffs, automatically it seems.

Yes, strong management is a huge factor in a league that has so many variables at play at once. The Patriots stay good through strong drafting and stockpiling picks, and refusing to overpay anyone. The Colts stay good through player development. The Redskins buy every big name free agent and generally underperform compared to expectations. And there’s also Matt Millen.

Even still, if the playoffs started today, six of the 12 playoff teams would be teams that weren’t there last year. Parity makes the game more exciting on a week-by-week basis, gives hope to the fans of bad teams, and is a sustainable business strategy for the league for the obvious reason of entertainment value. And furthermore, I need an excuse for sitting in ninth (instead of seventh, or first) in my picks pool.