Yet, as the NFL finished its seventh week Monday night when the Washington Redskins finally lost to a team that had a win on its record prior to playing them, it would seem parity is dead. There were four undefeated teams through the first six weeks of the season, which set a record in that regard. But, more troubling to NFL fans, there is a Not-So-Magnificent Seven teams that are garbage.
Each division has one team that has completely stunk out the joint this year and that doesn't include Buffalo or Oakland, which some think may not win another game all season. There is Cleveland (1-6), Tennessee (0-6), Kansas City (1-6), Washington (2-5), Detroit (1-5), Tampa Bay (0-7) and St. Louis (0-7) making the fight for the first pick in the 2010 draft as big a dog fight as those teams fighting for playoff spots and home-field advantage. Why? Blame the Houston Texans.
When the NFL added a 32nd team, it changed the level of parity between the good teams and the bad. For the purposes of example, following the 2000 season, the Vikings were the defending champions of the NFC Central and Chicago was in last place. Both teams played eight game games within their division and eight games outside their division in 2001. The average record of the Vikings' eight non-division opponents in 2001 was a little better than 10-6. The average record of the eight non-division opponents of the Bears in 2001 was a little worse than 6-10. Is it any wonder that Chicago was able to go from worst to first in one year? Much of it had to do with the way the schedule was laid out. The Vikings had to play the toughest four teams from the six-team AFC Central, while the Bears were able to escape the top two teams and play the dregs of the division, as well as getting two games against the last-place team from the NFC East. It was bizarre, but it was how you made a 28- or 30-team league schedule work.
When Houston joined the league, that all changed. Now with 32 teams, the unbalanced schedule that served as such an advantage for the teams with bad records all but vanished. The number of divisional games dropped from eight to six and the remaining 10 games became much more balanced.
This year, for example, the Vikings are the defending NFC North champions while the Detroit Lions finished last. However, their schedule has only two games different. Both the Vikings and Lions play six games against the division, four games against the NFC West and four games against the AFC North. The only difference is in the two games within the conference from the other two divisions. In the case of the Vikings, those two games are against Carolina and the Giants. The Lions got Washington and New Orleans. Other than that, their schedules are identical.
While adding a 32nd team made the league symmetrical – 32 teams dividing into eight four-team divisions – it also stripped away one of the biggest advantages that last-place teams had, as well as the hurdles facing divisional champions. Perhaps that's why a 16-game losing streak was possible for the Lions and one that has been matched less than a year later by the Rams.
There are still plenty of advantages given to last-place teams to improve quickly, but the schedule is no longer one of them. The field has been leveled considerably in that regard and it will likely mean that teams that are bad will remain bad for longer – and you can blame the expansion into Cleveland and Houston as the primary cause.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.