Is There Really Parity in the NFL?

With seven Super Bowl appearances since 2000, the Patriots are a modern NFL dynasty. Are other teams even getting a chance to dethrone them?

One of the podcasts I listen to is done by the head designer of the high fantasy game Magic: the Gathering, Mark Rosewater. On “Drive to Work”, he talks about the world of the game, the behind-the-scenes on making it, but -- most interestingly to me -- how to design games. Perhaps the most useful thought I have gleaned on game design is this: limitations breed creativity.

This is why the hard salary cap is such an important part of the National Football League. If every team has to operate under the same salary restrictions, no team can become a dynasty and completely break the system.

In theory, that is.

When the New England Patriots take the field in Houston for Super Bowl LI, they will have played in their seventh title game since the new millennium. The Patriots are clearly the monarchy of the AFC East and rule over the league with an iron fist, but is this unique to them or is the NFL basically a feudal system?

Does the NFL still have true equality?

The House and Line of Belichick

It’s no secret how dominant the Patriots have been over the last 16 years, but it is remarkable when looking at the actual numbers. The table below shows the number of their appearances in each round of the playoffs.

NE Playoffs Divisional Conf. Champs Super Bowl
Since 2001 14 13 11 7

Yes, it’s gross to think that the Pats have made it to nearly 50 percent of the last 16 Super Bowls, but it’s even more baffling that they’ve appeared in over two-thirds of the last 16 AFC championship games and all but three divisional rounds. This is the kind of dominance that league-equalizing policies such as a hard salary cap and the NFL Draft seek to even out.

The Patriots have been able to skirt these factors by finding superstar quarterback Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 Draft. Among quarterbacks to enter the league since 2000, Brady has generated the most career Net Expected Points (NEP) of any quarterback per their draft value. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

Brady -- selected at 199th overall -- is a Hall of Fame quarterback found in the late rounds, when most teams can’t even find a quality starter in the early ones. This clearly separates the Patriots from the rest of the pack, as most of the other above-average starters were first-round selections. The edge in finding a franchise quarterback cheaply is apparent, but how much they keep them for is even more indicative of success.

I took the top-20 highest-paid quarterbacks and compared their average annual value (AAV) of salary and their average NEP. The top five are in the table below, the rest are shown here.

Player Team $/NEP
Matt Ryan ATL $178,833.06
Tom Brady NE $185,738.88
Russell Wilson SEA $185,845.21
Aaron Rodgers GB $196,727.18
Drew Brees NO* $206,787.75

This effect -- conserving money at quarterback and spending it elsewhere -- was a big reason why the Seattle Seahawks’ roster was so deep during their two recent Super Bowl appearances: Russell Wilson was still on a third-round rookie contract and they could spend everywhere else.

Though Brady is no longer on his rookie deal (nor are any of the top-five quarterbacks shown), he’s continually taken sizable salary adjustments on his already below-market value contracts (for instance, the $27 million over three years through 2017) so the Patriots can get breathing room on their cap number. This cap room flexibility allows New England to keep going out and re-signing their important role players around Brady.

A premier quarterback willing to work for below-market value salaries has certainly created the ever-present juggernaut we now see in front of us today, busting apart the equalizing factors of the salary cap and Draft.

The Fling Dynasty

So we know how the Patriots and Brady break the system, but we return to the main question: is there a monopoly on the NFL by dynastic franchises?

When we look at every playoff appearance by NFL franchises over the last 16 years, most teams have played in the postseason around five to seven times (see chart below), while only the Patriots are on one end with 14 berths and the Buffalo Bills find the opposite with zero.

While obviously there is serious inequity between the two teams on opposite ends of the NFL postseason spectrum, the bell curve shows a fairly even distribution of playoff appearances across teams. Yes, the Patriots, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Seahawks have earned a combined 61 of 192 possible playoff spots over the last 16 seasons, so the bulk are somewhat leftward on the graph, but this isn’t horridly skewed in any one direction.

That changes when we look at teams making it to the conference championships and Super Bowl.

Both graphs skew heavily left, indicating that the majority of teams never sniff the chance to win their conference or the Big Game. While 10 teams haven’t gotten to the championship round in the last decade and a half, another six more have seen it once; that’s half the league right there.

Perhaps more damning, 30 of the 64 conference championship berths since 2000 are concentrated among five teams: the Patriots, Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, Packers, and Colts. It seems that the two wild card berths in each conference help to equalize the opportunity to get into the playoffs, but once those teams make it to the postseason, they flame out and never really have a chance.

The answer to our question seems to come down to a fundamental question of what NFL equality is: is it equality of opportunity, or equality of outcome?

Making the results of winning a title completely even would make the NFL boring, diminishing the interest of teams who weren’t allowed to win and making it less sweet for long-suffering franchises to finally pull out the victory (looking at you, Chicago Cubs). However, the league is still clearly inequitable in its opportunity to even contend for the championship.

The AFC especially has been stratified, with New England, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis making up 21 of the last 32 AFC Championship teams and 12 of the 16 Super Bowl representatives. Fortunately for fans of variety, there were some new faces in the AFC playoffs this year. The Oakland Raiders made it back for the first time since their 2002 Super Bowl berth and the Miami Dolphins re-appeared for their first time since 2008. The Houston Texans have also unseated the Colts for the AFC South division title in four of the last six years.

If more teams were able to assemble enough talent to challenge for the conference championship, or the Big Four’s (New England, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Green Bay) monopoly on the later rounds of the postseason was broken, things would get much more interesting.

Until an AFC quarterback starts in the Super Bowl and isn’t named Brady, Roethlisberger, or Manning, there won’t be true equality in the NFL.