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eXcess and O's

Not-So-Happy Medium Rules

November 17, 2002|MIKE PENNER

On the Web site www.despair.com, which is not the official home of the Cincinnati Bengal Fan Club, they sell a beautiful full-color lithograph of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in all its ill-conceived glory.

Beneath the tower is an inscription:

MEDIOCRITY

It Takes A Lot Less Time And Most People Won't Notice The Difference Until It's Too Late

At last! A perfectly acceptable marketing slogan for the new NFL!

Mediocrity rules!

Mediocrity sells!

Mediocrity wins Super Bowls!

Take a look at this morning's NFL standings. Seven teams are 5-4. Eight are 4-5. Two, Atlanta and Pittsburgh, are 5-3-1 because they played last Sunday to a tie, the most mediocre of all results, because of mediocre special teams play (Pittsburgh had an extra-point attempt and a field-goal attempt blocked), mediocre officiating (Plaxico Burress put the ball on the ground and spun it like a bottle and the officials ruled he hadn't fumbled) and mediocre coaching (Bill Cowher spent the entire extra period coaching not to lose, and that's precisely what his Steelers did, 34-34).

All 32 NFL teams have played nine games. Seventeen of them -- more than half the league -- have either won five games or lost five games.

Remember home-field advantage? In the new NFL, there is none. Through this season's first 10 weeks, home teams have won only 53% of the time.

Remember dynasties? When one or two teams used to dominate the league for years on end? In the new NFL, dynasties barely last a month.

Oakland had a good one. Back in September. The Raiders were 4-0. They were the scourge of the league. Al Davis had regained his genius stripes, having made the bold, visionary move to get rid of Jon Gruden, who was obviously a red-faced flash in the pan, as his season-opening loss to New Orleans conclusively proved.

Commemorative coffee table books were being planned. "Sept. 8-Oct. 6: Minutes We Will Never Forget."

Then, the Raiders went 0-4 before winning last Monday and are now just another number among the 5-4-or-4-5 masses.

Parity used to be the buzzword around the NFL, but parity implies equality, as in "All men are created equal," which sounds noble and desirable and certainly something worth striving for.

Mediocrity is more to the point. Mediocrity, the essence of being moderate in quality. Of being ordinary. Of being so-so. Better than lousy, less than good, stuck in the middle with you.

Parity, in its NFL context, is a state achieved via artificial means, such as the league's infamous weighted schedule, which rewards bad teams for their badness by giving them easier schedules. For years, it was the great NFL swindle -- league officials winking and patting each other on the back for fooling millions of fans into believing their awful teams were not really so awful on any given Sunday.

The media went along with it because, hey, lots of the games are close and so are the playoff races and as long as we get a credible champion in the end -- San Francisco or Denver or Green Bay -- what's the harm in having a little fun along the way?

Then St. Louis and Tennessee reached the Super Bowl in the same year. The Rams, 4-12 the previous season, won it. Red flags went up. Eyebrows too. If Georgia Frontiere can tiptoe to the top of the league, might there be something amiss within the league?

Since then, if you can judge a league by its champion, mediocrity has swamped the NFL.

Baltimore won the Super Bowl with half a team -- a formidable but fragile defense saddled with a pull date of January 2002 and a just-don't-do-anything-to-gum-it-up offense -- which left us with the indelible image of Trent Dilfer, poster boy for the New Mediocrity, hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy after beating Kerry Collins' New York Giants, the most mediocre NFC champion in memory.

New England won the Super Bowl despite three mediocre months (the Patriots were 5-5 heading into Thanksgiving) and a mediocre offense (the Patriots scored three offensive touchdowns during the postseason) because it capitalized on mediocre officiating in the divisional playoffs (the "tuck rule"), mediocre quarterbacking in the AFC final (Kordell Stewart) and a mediocre game plan by Ram Coach Mike Martz (Marshall Faulk as decoy) in the big game.

Now we are nine games into the 2002 season. The combined record of the last two Super Bowl champions, Baltimore and New England: 9-9.

The Ravens are 4-5. Out of 32 teams, they rank 16th in yards rushing per game, 17th in yards allowed per game, 16th in turnover-takeaway ratio and are tied for 15th in first downs allowed per game. They are tied for second place, or third place, depending on how you look at it, with Cleveland in the four-team AFC North.

The Patriots are 5-4 after being 3-0 and 3-4. They are tied for first in the AFC East with the Buffalo Bills, who have played three overtime games, and the Miami Dolphins, who have gone on streaks of 3-0, 0-1, 2-0 and 0-3 this season.

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