In the past two decades, the NFL has slowly been inching toward Paul Tagliabue's dream of perpetual parity. Whether it was expansion, the salary cap, revenue sharing or yearly schedules favoring weaker teams, the message has always remained the same: We like it when everyone has an equal chance to win. Everything crested in January of 2000, when St. Louis and Tennessee battled in Super Bowl XXXIV as casual fans asked questions like, "Wait, this is the NFL, right?" and "Is this the warm-up game for the Broncos and Niners?"
Of course, the 2005 season marked the beginning of a new era for the NFL: perpetual putridity.
Three things about that phrase. First, Perpetual Putridity is a fantastic name for an unlistenable/pretentious/ludicrous rock band and I can't believe Jared Leto didn't think of it. Second, even though it sounds like a made-up word, putridity is a word -- it's the noun for the adjective putrid, which means "decaying, disgusting or worthless." And third ...
(And most important ... )
What's a better word for the 2005 season than putrid? I'm not even talking about the Bears' going 13-3 without any semblance of an offense, or the Patriots' already locking up the AFC East title despite holding "American Idol"-like auditions for starting positions in the secondary (with Mike Stone emerging as the team's William Hung). The league has turned into a giant poo-poo platter. Not a pu-pu platter ... a poo-poo platter.
Here's what I mean: Every Monday afternoon, my buddy Sal calls me and we guess the lines for the upcoming week. Frankly, I'm not sure how this hasn't been turned into a show on ESPN2 yet, although I guess it would be humiliating for the Worldwide Leader if two borderline gambling addicts babbling about NFL lines on their cell phones drew higher ratings than "Quite Frankly." But it's always my favorite phone call of the week that doesn't involve my editor Mike Philbrick phoning, just to say things like, "Dude, your fake Stu Scott/Tyrone Green poem isn't gonna fly" or "I left the Michael Irvin joke in, but we had to yank the joke comparing TT Boy and Al Michaels." I love guessing the lines. Once upon a time, I even used to be good at it.
Now? There's no rhyme or reason to half of these games. More and more, I find myself hearing the matchup from Sal and saying things like, "Wow, that is a HORRIBLE game!" or "Good God, those teams suck!" After a discouraging Monday phone call in which I ended up being off by two points or more on 7 of the 16 games -- and by the way, I'm usually never off by more than a point -- I found myself perusing the NFL standings to answer the question once and for all: "How many of these teams truly suck?"
Keep in mind, there are only 32 NFL teams. During any given season, we'll have 2-3 great teams, 2-4 very good teams, 3-5 good teams, 3-4 decent teams, 4-5 half-decent/mediocre teams, 4-5 submediocre teams that can look frisky on the right day, 4-5 bordeline crummy teams, and 3-5 teams that warrant "truly suck" status. The breakdown shifts from year to year, but that's usually what it looks like in some form. Well, except for the 2005 NFL.
We have ...
One great team: Indy.
Two very good teams: San Diego and Denver.
Five good teams: Cincy, Carolina, Chicago, Seattle and the Giants.
(Note: I can't put Seattle higher than that. I'm sorry. I just can't do it. They remind me of Jay Leno's TV ratings -- I know the numbers are there, I know they're winning, but I just can't take them seriously. When your two good victories were handed to you -- and yes, the Cowboys and Giants gave those games away -- I can't take you seriously. Would I feel better about the 'Hawks if Matt Hasselbeck wore William Shatner's old hairpiece from "TJ Hooker?" Yes. Yes, I would. As for the Bears, it would take them between 25 and 50 plays to score from their own 20 yard-line against a good defense. I can't take them seriously, either. So there.)
A whopping eight decent teams: Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Kansas City, New England, Dallas, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Atlanta.
Two half-decent/mediocre teams: Minnesota and Washington.
No submediocre teams that can look frisky on the right day.
(Note: I find this astounding. That's a staple of the last six weeks of the season -- the overachiever that pulls off 2-3 upsets, gets its fans excited for the following season and screws up thousands of three-team teasers across the country. Actually, why am I complaining?)
One borderline crummy team: Miami.
There's one category left: The "teams that truly suck" category. Unfortunately, we knocked off only 19 teams in the league, and an astonishing 13 teams remain.
That's more than 40 percent of the league! Consider ...
• The 4-9 Bills just blew a three-touchdown lead with 12 minutes remaining to the immortal Sage Rosenfels. Are they as bad as the 3-9 Saints? Probably not. But it's close.
• The Browns currently have a QB controversy involving Charlie Frye and Trent Dilfer, as well as consecutive top-six picks with blown-out ACLs. I'm not sure whether they're better or worse than Kyle Boller and the Ravens, but one thing is for sure: They're joining the Bills in Suckville.
• The Packers have scored 239 points, given up 242 points ... and they're 2-10. In other words, they creatively suck.
• Not only did the poor Eagles lose at home by 42 points on Monday night, they're starting the Bizarro Triplets this weekend: Mike McMahon, Reggie Brown and some dude named "Moats." They are almost as bad as the Lions, who have been positively throttled by the fallout of the Mooch firing, to the point that their fans are so confused, they mistakenly cheered for Joey Harrington last week.
• After another of Norv Turner's team quit on him, it raises the question: Does this spread to other aspects of his life? For instance, if Turner is walking his dog, does the dog simply stop walking two blocks from the house? If his family is playing Scrabble during the Thanksgiving break, does the game break up when there are still 15 tiles left in the bag? How does this work? Anyway, add the Raiders to Suck Central.
• Arizona and Tennessee have proven coaches, recognizable quarterbacks and a knack for looking just good enough some weeks that you forget that they are terrible ... even though they are. In a semi-ironic twist, Warner and McNair battled in the aforementioned Super Bowl XXXIV. See, everything comes around.
• Not only are the Rams currently starting a quarterback who graduated from Harvard, not only does their game-breaking offensive player double as a white wide receiver, but the coach is named Joe Vitt and got his mustache from the Dave Wannstedt Starter Kit. Maybe they're 5-7, but how can they not suck?
• If either the Niners or Jets played in Indianapolis this month, they would be getting 24-27 points minimum in Vegas. It would be like a college spread. No joke. As my buddy House would say, these teams are sucktastic.
• In a perfectly disguised quest to land Reggie Bush, the Texans decided against firing floundering coach Dom Capers -- not even after his team rolled over not once, but twice, in front of a Sunday night TV audience, to the point that even Joe Theismann couldn't think of anything positive to say about him -- then intentionally threw away potential victories in Week 12 (blowing a 10-point lead with less than 30 seconds remaining) and Week 13 (allowing Kyle Boller to become the worst QB in NFL history to lead a game-winning two-minute drill). Are they throwing the season? Sure looks like it. Can you blame them? Probably not. After all, Reggie Bush is the next Gale Sayers. Either way, they virulently suck.
Again, that's 13 outright stinkers out of 32 teams. Imagine if the roles were reversed and there was a chance that 13 teams could finish 11-5 or higher, with three potential 14-2 teams and another potential 15-1 team? We would be calling this the greatest NFL season of all-time, right? Instead, we're smack-dab in the era of perpetual putridity.
And just in case you were wondering, I think this is happening for three reasons:
1. An inordinate amount of injuries because players are too fast, too big and too strong. When I was growing up, there was a popular weekly sports magazine called Sports Illustrated that everyone looked forward to reading. Anyway, one late-'70s NFL preview tried to anticipate what would happen in the 21st century, predicting 400-pound lineman and all this other crazy stuff, and I remember being a kid and thinking, "Holy crap! That would be unbelievable!" Now it's happening -- the game has evolved past the point where we can keep many key guys healthy. And it's slowly murdering the quality of play. Not sure how you solve that one.
2. With free agency, so many players jump around from year to year that there's no real sense of continuity, so all the pressure falls to the coaching staffs ... and we have only about six or eight NFL coaches worth a damn. For every Bill Belichick, there are five Jim Hasletts. That's a major problem. Not sure how you solve that one, either.
3. The eventual outcome of perpetual parity IS perpetual putridity. For example, after the magical run of alternative and hip-hop music from 1991-1995, everyone was so worn out from quality music that we allowed one-word crappy bands like Creed and Live to become famous, as well as untalented rappers like Diddy and Ja Rule, eventually leading to the inexplicable boom in hacky pop music, boy bands and that metal rock miasma. Just watch the SNL reruns from the bulk of the Will Ferrell era -- it's a musical apocalypse.
My theory for this: Everyone was so distracted by the unexpected Internet boon, as well as the copious amounts of suddenly free porn, that four or five years passed before we realized that the music industry was headed straight to hell. And it kept getting worse and worse and worse -- culminating in Andrew K's selling out NBA-sized arenas and everyone unwittingly allowing the complete bastardization of the music industry -- before the Strokes, Eminem and the White Stripes burst onto the scene and everyone remembered, "Hey, music can be popular and good! Wow!" And now we're knee-deep into another iPod-fueled renaissance.
Here's the point: if you allow things to slip away, you can go from Nirvana to Smashing Pumpkins to Foo Fighters to Creed to Hanson in the matter of milliseconds. We're watching it happen with the NFL right now. This season has been truly abominable -- how many well-played games did you watch in the first three months? The league ignored too many fundamental problems for too long, and there isn't a Jack White or Marshall Mathers waiting in the wings, ready to snap everyone out of their collective funk. I see this problem getting worse, not better.
Does this change my love for the NFL even one iota? Of course not. But it sure as hell makes it harder to gamble on. Bad teams are unpredictable. Bad teams tend to get a ton of points every week. Bad teams are unreliable at home. Bad teams can't be teased or parlayed. And when bad teams play one another, as far as I'm concerned, that's a stayaway every time. Bring on the playoffs. Please.
Onto the Week 14 quick picks ...
(Home team in caps)
TITANS (-6.5) over Texans
Introducing my newest and most prized gambling theory: The "Starting Now, Pick Against Every Team With a Realistic Shot at Landing Reggie Bush." I mean, did you see those performances against UCLA or Fresno State? I don't even follow college football and find myself religiously watching USC games now -- it's like watching Sayers' highlights in "Brian's Song," only in real life. Do you think anyone will be suspicious when the Texans sign Jesse Palmer to start the final 3 games of the season? You couldn't blame them, right?
Patriots (-4) over BILLS
You're not a true Pats fan until you've gone through the whole "All right, maybe Belichick put this team on cruise control since Week 5 ... now we're getting healthy, and we have Brady, so let's say we beat the Jags in Round 1, then San Diego upsets Denver, which means we play at Cincy in Round 2, so if we beat them, and the Chargers can shock Indy, we'd host San Diego at home for the AFC title game and play the winner of Seattle-Chicago in the Super Bowl" thought process. And gotten wildly excited about the whole thing.
VIKINGS (-7) over Rams
Does anyone else think that Daunte Culpepper is becoming the real-life Boobie Miles?
(Intriguing e-mail from Jesse in Florida: "As an avid fantasy football enthusiast, I was wondering if you were aware of the Ricky Proehl Theory in which every year, for some inexplicable reason, a white WR pops out of nowhere to go on to have an great fantasy season, but there's only really a 50/50 chance he'll ever do it again: Kevin Curtis (2005), Brandon Stokely (2004), Drew Bennett (2003), Brian Finneran (2002), Joe Jurevicius (2001) and I think it goes back all the way to the days of Wayne Chrebet and Ricky Proehl. Just to be safe, I am drafting Wes Welker early in my draft next year.")
Raiders (-3) over JETS
All right, I'm officially worried about Jets fans -- if they lose out on Bush, I really feel like something awful could happen. You know, like Brooks Bollinger being pelted to death by snowballs after mistakenly leading the team to a come-from-behind victory in Week 17. I'm already scared.
PANTHERS (-6) over Bucs
I figured out the Panthers: Great home team, lousy road team. So there you go.
By the way, I read in two places this week that Panthers-Bucs was a "heated divisional rivalry." Come on. Let's make a group pact and tone done the hyperbole, for everyone's sake -- I know everyone has to be the greatest team ever or the greatest quarterback ever, and I know announcers have to breathlessly scream "What a throw!" at the top of their lungs, just because David Carr successfully completed a 12-yard out that didn't sail over his receiver's head and plunk the guy holding the first-down marker in the face ... but can we draw the line at pumping up imaginary divisional rivalries? Let's leave a couple of things sacred for the real football fans. Thank you.
(And yes, that was my audition tape for "The Sports Reporters.")
STEELERS (-6) over Bears
Could both teams get to six points, combined? You got me. Anyway, I did some research on the 2005 Bears compared to the 2000 Ravens -- that Ravens team had Jamal Lewis and Priest Holmes at running back, as well as Shannon Sharpe at tight end, and scored 20-plus in six of the last seven regular season games and three of their four playoff games. They weren't as inept as everyone remembers (including me). So basically, I just disproved my own argument. Where's my master's degree from Paul Maguire University?
Dolphins (+14) over CHARGERS
I mean ... one of these big underdogs has to cover, right?
Colts (-9) over JAGS
Don't you get the feeling that the Colts are sitting around reading these "Nobody plays them toughter than the Jags" stories, snickering to themselves, and preparing to dish out an absolute beating this Sunday. Ever since that Pats game, they have a swagger that I can't remember seeing before -- culminating in that goofy halftime play last week when Manning flipped the ball to the ref, then tried to run back to the line of scrimmage to get off one more play. I'm telling you, Manning has gone insane -- he wants to destroy everyone. And he just might.
(Speaking of insane, not only did the Dodgers hire Grady Little as their manager, they gave him Steve Garvey's old number. Way to tick off the diehard Dodgers fans coming out of the gate, guys! Just wait until he's trying to figure out double switches and stuff -- this was a guy who managed to lose his No. 1, 3 and 4 hitters in extra innings of a must-win playoff game; I can't even imagine what he'll be capable of with pitchers batting. It's almost sounds like a sociological experiment. Thank you, Comedy Gods -- you have put me in the same city with Pete Carroll AND Grady Little.)
Giants (-7.5) over EAGLES
At my Philly signing on Wednesday, I couldn't believe the body language of the locals -- signing a sports book for these poor people was like signing a romance novel for Jennifer Aniston right after Brad and Angelina started dating. You can't even imagine how many people asked me, "Can you sign it, 'Maybe this will happen to the Eagles' someday?'" How can Philly have no titles over the past 22 years, yet the Florida Marlins won two World Series titles in the past eight years alone? How does that make sense?
SEAHAWKS (-17) over Niners
CARDS (+4) over Redskins
Kurt Warner's last five games: 1,647 passing yards, eight touchdowns, six interceptions. Not terrible. He's turning into the Nic Cage of the NFL -- has the (MVP/Oscar) award, has the résumé, puts up stats in the right situation, gives you a strange sense of credibility ... but it's probably not a good sign when he's headlining your team.
(Highlight from my D.C. visit this week: At the Wiz-Raps game, Gheorghe Muresan randomly appeared on the court during one promotional timeout gimmick, after which I was told by the House brothers, "Oh, yeah, he does something every home game, he's available." That led to a lively group conversation including comments like, "On the bright side, it's better than the circus," "It would be kinda cool if he became the world's tallest homeless man," "Imagine if he went into porn?" and "What year do you think Billy Crystal told his assistant to stop accepting Gheorge's calls? 2001? 2002?")
BRONCOS (-14.5) over Ravens
Mike Shanahan hates fantasy football. HATES it. That's the only explanation for this whole "Let's bring Ron Dayne into this Thunder and Lightning" thing. He's antagonizing us. I'm convinced.
(An intriguing e-mail from Derek in St. Petersburg, Fla.: "I'm trying to warn everyone early -- Jake Plummer's season is eerily reminiscent of Kordell Stewart's 2001-02 season when he led the Steelers to a 13-3 season and was mentioned in the MVP race. Then he reverted back to the same old Kordell and killed the Steelers in the playoffs. I'll be looking forward to betting against 'The Snake' in the postseason.")
COWBOYS (-3) over Chiefs
Funniest fantasy dynamic of the season: Any fantasy league where one guy took Priest Holmes and another guy took Larry Johnson. If the Larry Johnson Guy acts even remotely smug to the Priest Holmes Guy, it's almost like acting smug after you've hooked up with somebody's sister -- you can do it, but you might get punched in the face. By the way, did anyone else pick up on the disturbing parallels between Drew Bledsoe's Cowboys season and Gary Hogeboom's "Survivor" season? Is it even worth elaborating on? Probably not.
(Something that is worth elaborating on: So long, Edgar Renteria! I feel strangely vindicated that they had to spend an extra $11 million just to dump a free agent signing that never made sense in the first place. Well done, guys. On the train from Philly to New York yesterday afternoon, I was rejoicing with my buddy Hench about the trade when the train went under a tunnel, immediately cutting off my cell phone reception. So I hang up the phone and the Yankee fan behind me goes, "Excuse me, did I just hear you say that the Sox traded Renteria for a prospect? That's unbelievable! How did they get anything for him? I can't believe it!" What a week. By the way, is it a bad sign when it's mid-December and your team doesn't have a GM or a shortstop? I feel like I should be concerned.)
Lions (+6) over PACKERS
I know we're not allowed to discuss this because it's Brett Favre and all, but his inexorable decline has reached the point where I expected him to throw the game-changing first-half interception and the game-ending fourth-quarter interception in Chicago last week. That's a little sad.
(Well, unless you teased the Bears and the under. Then it wasn't so sad.)
BENGALS (-12.5) over Browns
Charlie Frye on the road ... Charlie Frye on the road ... Charlie Frye on the road ...
(Random thought: Imagine if the Bengals somehow made the Super Bowl? Would that be the greatest two weeks of Chad Johnson's life or what? Would he ever sleep? Would Vegas even take odds on his guaranteeing a Cincy Super Bowl win? Would he show up for Media Day like 12 hours early? He could become the first athlete ever fined for refusing to leave Media Day. Sure, I'd love to give an exclusive 10-minute interview to a newspaper in Bangladesh, fire away!)
Saints (+10.5) over FALCONS
With this whole Reggie Bush Phenomenon -- I know, I know, I can't stop bringing him up -- do you think Michael Vick is starting to feel the pressure a little bit? I mean, he thought he was a mortal lock to become the greatest video game character since Bo Jackson. Everyone agreed on this; even Vick seemed to enjoy it. But now Bush is looming as the first-ever "Madden" running back to get a 99 rating as a rookie, and by the time he's in the league for four years, his rating might be like 110. Poor Vick is like the Pixies hearing people buzzing about Nirvana for the first time. I think he's rattled.
Last week: 8-8
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.