By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) Use whatever euphemism you want for whatever the NFL has become.
The achievement of former commissioner Pete Rozelle’s vision of parity looks like this, now, and is described variously by those trying too hard to make sense of it. One popular phrase is it’s a “week-to-week league,” with each round of games seen as disconnected from the one just before or after, in a frustratingly desultory and indiscriminate environment.
Bears coach Marc Trestman – himself a bookish, thoughtful sort – takes it a step further, explaining to his players the concept that informs their weekly preparation and focuses them on what they can immediately control. He thinks of all these weeks as 16 individual seasons, which sounds awfully tiring.
The underlying truth is there, however, and the league has been building to this point for some time due to a confluence of circumstances and policies. I have long favored a simpler philosophical model to explain the general relativity of the NFL, believing firmly in Blob Theory.
The Blob is the mass of teams each year that are about as good as every other. There will be a few that are dynamic enough to escape the gravity exerted by the Blob for brief periods, even able to reach the outer orbits of playoffs or a Super Bowl before their arcs degrade and they are sucked back in. Some others fall closer to the molten core, after which the coach gets fired and a quarterback gets drafted.
Regardless, the force of the Blob remains.
And three games into 2014, I can report that at no time in recent memory has the Blob appeared to be larger than it is right now. I have consulted all recent reports from both our internal monitoring stations and deep-space telescopes, and I can say with confidence that we are at peak Blob levels.
Nobody’s great, only a couple teams are genuinely awful, and everybody’s hurt.
Such is the polarized salary-cap environment, in which a player is either a multi-million-dollar arm, a highly paid star or a cheap rookie. By midseason, undrafted free agents have replaced many of the known names due to injury, and all teams routinely conduct open tryouts to keep churning the bottom of their rosters in search of viable human resources. Every team already has at least some bad players asked to accomplish something important.
Officiating is unpredictable to the point of being bizarre, as if penalties are assessed on mere whim. One play’s perfectly legal block is flagged on the next, replays that seem obvious prove otherwise, and nobody really seems sure what constitutes defenselessness or the legal way to throw somebody on the ground. This uncertainty only exacerbates football’s inherent randomness that comes with an oddly bouncing ball and the small sample size of just 16 outcomes to measure quality.
Playoff teams turn over at a high rate, and we expect that to continue. Approximately half of all those reaching the postseason last year probably won’t return, and history suggests at least one of the teams at the very bottom will bubble back up to prominence. The divisional Balkanization of 2002 has since provided an even greater chance for a mediocre team to stay competitive longer.
Just look at this year: The vaunted Seahawks have already been beaten, and their secondary was just gashed late in Sunday’s game by Peyton Manning calling the same play repeatedly to throw to the same spot. The undefeated teams look more competent than dominant, and the reliably-elite Patriots are just not, anymore, with both Tom Brady and his cast of interchangeable helpers looking increasingly ordinary.
A big Blob is great for business, perhaps, keeping as many television markets interested as long as possible, but it’s also unsatisfying for those appreciating the kind of stratification that provides a clearer example of how to build toward a championship.
Each season we shortsightedly divine broad lessons from whichever team takes its turn outlasting the others, and owners go through the silly exercise of copying something that is unlikely to reoccur. Blob Theory, then, will assert that such efforts at emulation will be rendered more and more futile.
Parity is mediocrity, which is then channeled through a closed competitive system to produce something representing quality, and is then purported as such.
As The Blob was touted on a 1954 movie poster, it’s “Indescribable … Indestructible! Nothing can stop it!”