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Dan Levy
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Dan Levy

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It's the NFL. Everyone who steps onto an NFL field is, by definition, a professional athlete. So it's hard to think of an NFL team as a Cinderella story. More likely, the team that gets hot at the right time probably just underachieved the rest of the season.

Think about the NFC title game last week. The Eagles squeaked into the playoffs and until they made an improbable run to the NFC title game, nobody thought just getting to the playoffs at 9-6-1 was anything to celebrate. That record was a huge disappointment for the expectations people had for the team. And the Cardinals were the trendy pick at the beginning of the season to win the NFC West, so I don't think anyone was surprised that they were the best team in that division, even if they went 3-7 the rest of the year.

Cinderella is a concept built for March Madness. Cinderella is a team that nobody has ever heard of -- a team that has no business sharing the court with the big boys. In the NFL, everybody's a big boy. There is no George Mason. There is no Davidson. There are just good teams, bad teams and teams that were bad then got good at the right time. Now, if the question is wondering if those teams are bad for the game (which, yes, I understand was the question), the answer is... no.

The NFL model in the salary-cap and free agency world we live in is based on the assumption that all teams are created equal. That means that every team starts out at 8-8. Good decisions, smart cap management and the occasional fortunate bounce can make some of those teams "contenders." Think about this: the Miami Dolphins scored 28 more points than their opponents and won the AFC East. The New England Patriots scored 101 more points than teams they faced and watched the playoffs from home. It's about bounces. It's about getting lucky at the right time.

Or, in the case of a team like Green Bay, who scored 39 more points than their opponents yet finished 6-10, it's about getting lucky at the wrong times.

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Okay, I've been circling the real point of this topic, so let's get to it. Does a team that was mediocre, goes on a run and ends up in the Super Bowl devalue the league? Also... no. It makes the league more interesting. Every week any team can win (well, maybe not Detroit). There is so much parity in the league that every city has a chance to go on a run every year. And anyone -- even the Arizona Cardinals -- can end up in the Super Bowl.

That's a good thing.

In addition, stars emerge when teams come out of nowhere. Sorry, but a Super Bowl with another Tom Brady or Peyton Manning-led team doesn't really interest me. But the reclamation project of Kurt Warner's career, or the emergence of a player like Larry Fitzgerald, is what makes the game compelling to watch.

We need Goliaths in sports, because without them, there'd be no Davids to root for. But compelling drama in every game, every week... I think that's actually become more fun to watch.

By Dan Levy  |  January 23, 2009; 2:25 PM ET  | Category:  Arizona Cardinals Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: The Beauty of Cinderellas | Next: Cards May Change the NFL

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It's just a funny year, as between some real page turning of talent and coaching with Titans, Dolphins, Ravens and the injuries that diluted the Pats, Chargers, Giants etc. I've been surprised at Cardinals winning without a Super Bowl D, but a hot HoF QB and wide out with a good front four are always in the game, and the teams it faced underestimated them and didn't have a good playbook ready. But I don't think "Cinderella" applies before you know that the team's season was a one-off. Next year we'll know better which of the surprise teams were "Cinderellas" and which are legitimate new powerhouses and whether some of the old guard are still around. At Warner's age, this may be a fluke season but ain't necessarily.

Posted by: internet2k4 | January 24, 2009 9:21 AM

The real question is does the regular season mean anything anymore. Increasingly, in most sports it has become a seeding process. Wild cards give teams 2nd chances and it seems in some sport 3rd chances to get into the playoffs.

Once, of course winning a pennant in baseball really meant something, but now it just seems to be simply a chance to slightly improve your seeding in the playoffs. The NBA regular season seems almost meaningless now w/ over 50% of the teams in the playoff (I don't blame them though, b/c March Madness is the best product in US sports and if they don't emulate it it's at their own peril.

So what's it going to be? A regular season with meaning? with teams going home regretting their lost opportunities? or just a lengthy preseason?

Posted by: jhtlag1 | January 24, 2009 9:40 AM

What matters most to me is parity or near parity in all competitive sports. I stopped watching NFL games on television during the New England Patriots reign of power. What makes watching a game exciting to me is when the outcome is up for grabs. If I know who will be in the Super Bowl before the season even begins I don't watch even one game during the season. I've switched from watching NFL games to college games for that reason. Of course I've only been watching football for 55 years so what do I know.

Posted by: Grousefeather | January 24, 2009 10:46 AM

I suppose I am old fashioned, but I preferred it when the regular season was decisive in determining who played for the championship in professional sports. it gave the season more meaning. However, I doubt that this is even possible with the number of teams now. One could not play a round-robin schedule, which is the only fair way to have the regular season count for everything, and there would be too few teams with a hope of making the post season to sustain interest among the fans. So we have to get along with an age in which the hot team wins the championship and understand that winning has less significance than it had when it represented the best body of work over the entire length of the season.

Posted by: fcodispoti | January 24, 2009 2:21 PM

"Devalue the league"???? In terms of what? Financial stability? Prestige? Integrity? Honor? We're talking about, essentially, professional entertainment, not the armed forces, medicine, education, etc. If an underdog team getting into the Super Bowl increases interest in the game, and the league in general, it's good, at least in terms of marketing. If a small media market team gets into a playoff game/series (e.g, Tampa Bay in the World Series), that hurts profits from broadcasts but probably does not matter greatrly to most "fans." People get bored if the same old teams are always in the Super Bowl. Either way, it doesn't matter a whole lot the next day, except for those who profit financially.

Posted by: Sutter | January 24, 2009 3:57 PM

Great, great article! This had me on the edge of my seat. This should be required reading for every NFL owner especially that preening, snivelling ... I mean Mr. Snyder. I will wrap it up directly below for the learning impaired.

If every team in the NFL has pro caliber players (parity), then good coaching and salary cap management is what makes a winning program.

Posted by: biffgriff | January 25, 2009 5:17 PM

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