Sunday, January 10, 2010

NFL: Reviewing the Decade

Today’s “Wild Card” round of playoffs marked the beginning of the final chapter for the first decade of the 21st century for NFL Football. Starting play today, there would be no surprise to find Indianapolis, New England, Philadelphia, Green Bay, Baltimore, and San Diego in the hunt for the Super Bowl. These are six of the top ten teams based on the decade’s results. Missing in action are Pittsburgh, Denver, Tennessee, and the New York Giants.

Fans would not be surprised who the top two franchises are, but let’s look at the top ten teams and see which fans can truly be proud in a sport so driven by keeping everything even where parity trumps excellence.

1. Indianapolis Colts… 115 – 45
2. New England Patriots… 112 – 48
3. Philadelphia Eagles… 103 – 56
4. Pittsburgh Steelers… 103 – 56
5. Green Bay Packers… 95 – 65
6. Denver Broncos… 93 – 67
7. Baltimore Ravens… 92 – 68
8. Tennessee Titans… 91 – 69
9. New York Giants… 88 – 72
10. San Diego Chargers… 85 – 75

Note only three teams, the Eagles, Packers, and Giants represent the NFC. Some of the storied franchises of the past have fallen badly in the 2000’s, notably the Miami Dolphins at 79 – 81, 18th overall, the Washington Redskins, 70 – 90, 24th, the San Francisco 49ers, 68 – 92, 27th and Buffalo Bills, 66 – 94, 27th. Once honored by their phrase, “Commitment to Excellence” and a force to contend with early in the decade reaching the Super Bowl after the 2002 season, the Oakland Raiders have fallen off to the mire of the miserable. Despite comfortable double digit seasons in the first three seasons of the decade, Al Davis’s beasts at 62 – 98, in 29th place. Likewise wallowing in misery, the Cleveland Browns posted 103 losses in finish in 30th place. We’ll give the 31st team a slight break, Houston, as an expansion team who should be finding their feet by now, but while fans can marvel at the amazing achievements of the Colts, Patriots, Eagles, and Steelers averaging more than ten wins a season, what can be said of the rock bottom Detroit Lions who post a 42 – 118 record at the bottom of the heap?

For those who despair over living in cities with long traditions of losing, some joy can be taken that the long time misery of the Cardinals franchise was finally overcome by a solid post season run almost beating the highly favored Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl. They return to action against Green Bay for a second shot at the Lombardi Trophy enjoying what had been so elusive for so long now for a second season in a row.

The Browns and Lions have never played in the Super Bowl. For Cleveland fans, it’s been a long time since the old Browns were perennial rivals of the Pittsburgh Steelers playing in championship games against Denver as best symbolized by John Elway’s famous drive. For Lions fans, aside from the watching the brilliant career of Barry Sanders, what meaningful football has the Motor City enjoyed since the Lions squeezed the gridiron into old Tiger Stadium?

Looking ahead to the next decade, what might be some stories to watch?

One has to wonder about the ultimate fate of the Jacksonville Jaguars who still struggle to become consistent winners and suffer from terrible attendance. While ownership states its loyalty to the region, team that stands out for consistently having home games blacked out has much work to do to get their house in order.

The San Francisco 49ers struggle to resemble the great teams of the 1980’s and 1990’s when Joe Montana handed off QB chores to Steve Young and both had Jerry Rice to toss long bombs. Mike Singletary surely is a demanding coach pushing hard to drive the team back to their winning ways, but what has his front office given him to work with? Candlestick Park is hardly an NFL class stadium still relying on pullout seating to configure the facility into football shape with many worthless seats and none of the luxury perks found in modern fields. California politics move slowly with every fringe lunatic cause and special interest keeping the team from finding a new home. San Jose looks ready to welcome the team south, but once again, political opposition could crash the deal.

Can anyone guess what the future holds for the Oakland Raiders? Al Davis moved the team to Oakland from the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1995 having had a huge albatross with special seating, luxury suites, and other modern amenities plopped down in the outfield of the Oakland-Alameda stadium, creating one of the most awkward facilities in all of outdoor sports. While it gave Davis some instant money and a steady revenue stream, this is hardly adequate housing for today’s NFL teams. Davis, at 80 years old, still runs the team as “managing general partner” or some other title, but still attempts to micromanage all aspects of the team’s operation. Where some of his rebellious and unpredictable ways helped knock the NFL off of its cozy, play-it-safe tush, decades ago, nothing good comes from Davis’s involvement in the new millennium. Clearly, the Oakland franchise has to be on the endangered watch list.

The Buffalo Bills play to one of the smallest markets in the NFL in an antiquated stadium that opened in 1971. Ralph Wilson is a dearly loved owner who has given the community much but at age 91, how much he will be in the picture and for how long is hard to say. The team already has committed to play one of its home games in Toronto after the CFL season is over. With an old stadium, a small market, and an aged owner, NFL fans around Niagara Falls hope their football dreams don’t go over the brink in a barrel.

While playing well on the field this year and certainly capable of generating sufficient attendance, the future of the Minnesota Vikings has to be murky given that the Twin Cities helped the Minnesota Twins build a new baseball only stadium while the University of Minnesota also opened a new football stadium, leaving the Vikings in the 1982 Hubert Humphrey Metrodome. While the venue is now the exclusive home of the Vikings, it is far from living up to modern NFL Valhalla’s. No concrete plan is in the works to give the Vikings a new home.

Surely the lack of decent accommodations is the driving issue for several teams. Others just simply cannot get the right leadership combination assembled to produce a consistently worthy franchise. While perhaps having a breakthrough season or two, mediocrity rules in cities like Charlotte, where the Carolina Panthers are a most hit or miss operation. Aside from their brief surge with Tony Dungy handing off to John Gruden, not much to applaud can be said of Tampa Bay. The Bengals made it to the play offs this year and lost. The Brown family seldom seems willing to commit to franchise stability. The Houston Texans have been in the league eight years now and finally finished with a winning record. It’s time for them to make their next step.

Perhaps no story in football is more frustrating than that of our other regional team, the Washington Redskins who perhaps might have the right leadership in place after a decade long slide that even Joe Gibbs couldn’t rescue. Can Bruce Allen and Mike Shanahan restore life to the once proud team on the Potomac? If so, meddlesome owner, Daniel Snyder must step aside and stop using his millions to play fantasy football. The results have been a disaster.

One other observation, if the NFL is so hell-bent on parity, why are the top ten teams, the real stable franchises, such an AFC affair? Just below the top ten are five NFC teams who did slightly better than breaking even in wins and losses over the past ten years. Jerry Jones must back out and let football men run his team if the Cowboys are to return to the elite. The New Orleans Saints could be an organization on the move. Paul Allen is surely committed to making the Seahawks winners but has failed to get the right leadership in place. The Vikings could have the nucleus of a solid team for the immediate future. The Chicago Bears could be tweaked into being a darned good team.

Of the remaining teams, right in the middle of the pack, the New York Jets (16th) and Miami Dolphins (18th) appear to be heading in the right direction. The Jets have not won a Super Bowl since Super Bowl III when Joe Namath smashed the Baltimore Colts. Bill Parcells is working to bring the Dolphins their most stable operation since Don Shula’s days.

How well these teams will do depends on their efforts and how much room the top of the field budges to give them wiggle room. All of the top ten teams have solid leadership and committed ownership that will respond if the effort on the gridiron suffers.

Of the teams still standing and those we watched this past season, which teams have the building blocks to become the leaders in the 2010-19 decade?

Here in Baltimore, we must like our outlook.

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