Talk about a no-brainer! When the boss called and suggested a story on why the NFL brand of football is superior to the college game, I hesitated.
For about a nanosecond.
Raised in Pittsburgh, I spent most summer evenings sneaking through my father's turnstile at Forbes Field to watch the Pirates, and the falls scrounging tickets to see my beloved Panthers at Pitt Stadium. But the first love of every person of my generation was the Steelers, even though they typically won more of the on-field brawls than the games that were also included in the price of admission.
For a buck, you could get into Pitt Stadium or Forbes Field -- the Steelers didn't have their own facility in those days -- and sit in the end zone and fall in love with the NFL game. It costs a lot more to get into an NFL scrimmage these days, but the game remains a great one, much better than its college counterpart. And here's why:
1. Super Bowl
Geez, this first one is like shooting fish in a bath tub. With an Uzi in each hand. Let's call it Payoffs versus Playoffs, and you can pretty much figure where we're going here, right? The NCAA has sanctioned 32 bowl games for Division I teams in the coming season. They are named for everything from automobile care services to chicken sandwiches to hair creams to insurance companies to an unforgettable Texas landmark to a dippin' chip that has long been one of our snacking vices. And at the end of those 32 bowl games, the college participants will have a lot of cash in their coffers, but still might not have a legitimate champion that is beyond debate. At least not one that earned it on the field in a meaningful playoff system.
The NFL has one bowl game and its outcome determines a viable champion. Not necessarily the best team in the league, as Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher keeps telling people when recalling his Super Bowl XL outfit, but one that has played its way through a grinder of a postseason system. 'Nuff said. If I was Tony Kornheiser, I'd declare victory, do that silly "penguin dance," and stop right here. But the bosses said that I had to come up with 20 reasons for NFL superiority (wow, talk about overkill, huh?), so 19 more, as superfluous as they must seem, now follow.
2. Hope springs eternal
Every summer, when the NFL's 32 teams convene for training camp, about 25 of them actually believe they have a legitimate chance to make it to the playoffs. Know why? Because they do. Over the last five seasons, all but five franchises -- Arizona, Buffalo, Detroit, Houston and New Orleans -- have qualified for postseason play at least once. It may be misguided in some league precincts, but hope, indeed, springs eternal at the game's professional level.
In the college game, hope pretty much springs leaks. Over the same five-year period, just 18 different Division I teams have finished in the consensus top 10. That's an average of two new top-10 outfits every season. It's called competitive balance, folks, and the college game simply doesn't have it.
3. Hope springs eternal II
Competitive balance (or lack thereof) II: As usual, nearly one-quarter of the NFL's regular-season games in 2005 were decided by three points or less. The actual count was 23.4 percent, or 60 of 256 contests. And 44.5 percent (114 of 256) of the outcomes were decided by seven points or less. Those numbers have remained pretty steady for the past decade. There are no numbers that hold steady at the elite levels of the college game, where the scoreboards might as well be tote boards at a telethon.
The top 10 teams from the final polls last year combined to play only 27 games decided by a touchdown or less. On the flip side, they played 61 games decided by 20 points or more, 37 in which the final margin was 30-plus points, 17 decided by more than 40 points and nine decided by 50-plus points. Yeah, the NFL still has some sad-sack teams, but they aren't nearly as hapless as the opening-game or homecoming opponents of those universities that annually nest in the top 10.
4. You call that enlightened?
There are now 119 football programs in the NCAA playing at the Division I level. All of them, we presume, are essentially presided over by enlightened university presidents or chancellors. Then again, if they're so enlightened, how come only four of the 119 programs employ black head coaches? On the flip side, NFL owners are pretty much a fraternity of rich guys who, trust us, are on the conservative side of things. Yet there are seven black head coaches among the league's 32 teams.
Sure, the NFL deserves to be blistered for the tardiness of its diversity movement. But not by a bunch of high-brow academicians who live in glass houses of higher learning and haven't earned the right to throw stones at anyone. Not all that long ago, it would have been unthinkable to consider the NFL forward-looking and progressive in matters of race not involving players. Progressive might still be a reach, but oh, my, how times have changed.
5. Easy call
Speaking of "Oh, my!" -- which barely edges out "Whoa, Nellie" for the dubious honors -- that's the best the college game can do for a signature call by its transcendent television play-by-play personality of the past 30 years or so? What's up with that? (Actually, that might be a better call for NCAA games, so feel free to borrow it.) Virtually every home team radio play-by-play announcer or color analyst has one terrific, colorful signature call. We'd pay big money to hear one more "Double Yoi!" uttered by old friend Myron Cope, the longtime (now retired) Pittsburgh Steelers radio analyst. Oh, my? C'mon.
6. Something to cheer for
Unless Playboy is going retro on us, and reprising one of those "Girls of the Big Ten" or "Girls of the SEC" photo spreads that used to run regularly this time of year, you don't see much skin from college cheerleaders. As for the NFL, well, have you ogled the Raiderettes lately? Or just about any other NFL cheerleader unit? Case closed.
7. Elevating the game
The United States Army exhorts recruits to "be all that you can be." The NFL drafts players and then forces them -- or, in some cases, builds them up -- to become the best they can be. And they do it, in part, by exploiting every ounce of a player's talent. During his four college seasons at TCU, for instance, tailback LaDainian Tomlinson ran in a "veer" offense, rarely had to pound the ball between the tackles, and was virtually ignored as a receiver. Tomlinson caught 22 passes for 236 yards in college, and even though the San Diego Chargers had no qualms about using the fifth overall selection in the 2001 draft to grab him, they didn't know if Tomlinson could catch a cab, let alone a football.
But the Chargers made him into an excellent all-around back, complementing Tomlinson's breathtaking running skills with very good ball-catching abilities. In five NFL seasons, Tomlinson has never had fewer than 53 receptions or 367 receiving yards. In the college game, the coaches too often make a player what they want him to be. In the NFL, those same players have an opportunity to display their full range of abilities.
8. Elevating the game II
In his four seasons at the University of Tennessee, Peyton Manning never beat the University of Florida. In his eight NFL campaigns, the Indianapolis Colts star is 11-9 against franchises from the state of Florida. And that includes an 8-3 mark since 2002. Against the NFL team that's located closest to Gainesville, Fla., home of the Gators, the Jacksonville Jaguars, he is 7-2. So, yeah, we know what you're thinking: Pasquarelli, you idiot, the whole 0-4 deal versus Florida must demonstrate that the college game was actually more difficult for Manning, right? Our counter: Hey, look, we made a slam-dunk case for why the NFL is superior after item No. 1, we're struggling a little here to come up with 20, and oblige us some skewed logic, please. In our little NFL corner of the world, Manning is seen as a far better NFL quarterback, surrounded by more talent, more able to take advantage of all his skills physical and mental, and headed for the Hall of Fame.
9. Traveling in style
You don't need to fly a puddle-jumper to get to any NFL city. Yep, they've even got real, live jet service into Green Bay now. We concede, a lot of it is regional jet service, but those 50-seaters are a whole lot better than the noisy turboprops that still ferry fans and media types to some college hinterlands.
10. Leave the animals at home
College game: Bulldogs, bison, bulls and horses are trotted out for games and occasionally leave behind a "gift" that needs to be shoveled up by the grounds crew. NFL: No live animal mascots in attendance, so only the players bomb on the field.
11. Counter-34 Pike
Say what? It's the play on which Pittsburgh tailback Willie Parker raced 75 yards for a touchdown, on the second snap of the second half, to break open Super Bowl XL. What's so special about Counter-34 Pike? Be honest, how often do you see a 75-yard touchdown run in any NFL game? Or, for that matter, a 40-yard touchdown run? Not too often. Heck, turn on any college game and a long scoring run of 40, 50, 60 yards is apt to occur every quarter, because, as noted above, the games are often decided by 40, 50 or 60 points. A guy like, say, Oklahoma tailback Adrian Peterson can go 50 yards in a blink, not necessarily because the play was well blocked, but because he's a talent mismatch against 70 percent of the rest of the players on the field.
In the NFL, you earn long runs, they must be masterfully blocked, they are, dare we say without being accused of getting soft, a thing of beauty. Break out the DVD of Super Bowl XL and watch Counter-34 Pike. Then rewind it and watch it again. And again. You see left guard Alan Faneca pull all the way to the right and bury Seattle strongside linebacker LeRoy Hill? Now look at right guard Kendall Simmons demolishing "under" tackle Chuck Darby and right tackle Max Starks simply enveloping middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu. Truth be told, Parker had the easiest job of any of the key players in the run. The point is, to have such a long running play in the NFL, everything has to be perfect. In college, most such plays are a product of the imperfections of the respective talent level.
12. The Hall
The Pro Football Hall of Fame is located in Canton, Ohio, where the game actually originated when a bunch of guys huddled in an old Hupmobile showroom. The college football shrine is in Notre Dame, where a lot of people only think every good idea was hatched.
This much we readily concede: The college game features more passion, loyalty, devotion. Because of free agency, NFL fans now find themselves cheering for uniforms, not the guys who once wore them. But shortsighted college fans too often ignore the reality that there are great, riveting rivalries at the NFL level, too. Pittsburgh-Cleveland. Oakland-Kansas City. Dallas-Washington. Chicago-Green Bay. Sure, the history of collegiate football is a longer one and, in some ways, a richer one, too. But poised on its 87th season, the NFL is The Game. And it is so because every game counts, not just the homecoming mismatch or the opener against a Division I-AA pushover.
There are great, unknown, geographic rivalries, too. Most folks outside the Southeast, for instance, laugh when told that one of the most colorful regional rivalries in all of sport is that between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints. Every year, bus caravans loaded with rowdy (and usually very inebriated) fans make the seven-hour trip between the two cities. Unless you've attended a Falcons-Saints debauchery-filled afternoon, you'll just have to take my word for how much fun it really can be.
14. No kangaroo court
In the NCAA, when a player gets in trouble, the school is blamed for something called an absence of "institutional control." In the NFL, when a player is busted, he's usually sanctioned for lack of self-control. Granted, it often takes a ponderously long time for the NFL sanctions to come down. But the league office has an attorney running the show, and still believes in the concept of "due process," which has to be better than those NCAA kangaroo courts.
15. Put a cap on it
As much as it's manipulated at times, especially by the high-revenue franchises, the NFL at least has a salary cap, and that helps maintain the ever-critical competitive balance. It's determined by a formula in which the players share the league's overall revenues. The salary cap in the college game is defined by how deep the boosters want to dig into their pockets, and whether the hot-shot tailback recruit prefers an Escalade or a Navigator.
16. No gimmicks allowed
As they say in playground basketball, when a guy comes down the lane and tries a floater, and has it jammed back down his throat by a defender: "Don't be bringing that soft [junk] in here." Same is true of the NFL, especially when some college coaches who come to the league think their gimmick offenses are going to succeed. The run-and-shoot? Uh, no. The fun-and-gun? It fired blanks. Just ask Steve Spurrier, who could take a pickup team, teach it a few plays, and have an offense that ranks among the college game's elite units, about the problems installing a gimmick-based offense in the league.
In the NFL, well, Spurrier was 12-20 in his two-season flirtation with the big boys. Or how about University of California coach Jeff Tedford? OK, so he hasn't yet ventured into the NFL, but a lot of his college quarterbacks have. Trent Dilfer, David Carr, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, Kyle Boller, Aaron Rodgers, Billy Volek and A.J. Feeley. And they've got (drum roll, please) one Super Bowl ring among 'em. Tedford teaches a passing system in which his quarterback has to read only one half of the field. Problem is, when those guys move on to the NFL, they can barely read a "See Spot Run" primer. Don't bring that soft (junk) in here, indeed.
17. Old guard
Granted, there aren't many of the old-timers left, but owners such as the Steelers' Dan Rooney, the Bengals' Mike Brown, the Bills' Ralph Wilson, the Lions' Bill Ford, the McCaskey family in Chicago and the Mara and Tisch kids with the New York Giants, still embrace the game as uppermost. In an era of soaring revenues, with greater disparity than ever between the NFL's haves and have-nots, those owners tend to be the conscience of the league. There certainly isn't as much one-for-all camaraderie as there was less than two decades ago, but as long as the NFL still has men who believe in the importance of the game, the NFL will remain this country's preeminent sports pastime. College football has, like, what, Miles Brand?
18. Pete Carroll
At Southern California: A couple national championships in five seasons. The second-best winning percentage (54-10, .844) among active coaches with five seasons of college experience. A fat contract. The world at his feet. Pete Carroll in the NFL: One game above the break-even point (34-33) in four seasons. Two playoff berths but never advanced beyond the divisional round. Fired by the New York Jets (after the 1994 season) and the New England Patriots (following the 1999 campaign).
19. The marching band refused to yield
None of the most controversial late-game plays in NFL history -- the Immaculate Reception, the Holy Roller, the Music City Miracle, go ahead, pick one -- included someone sprinting through a collectively crazed marching band that had curiously wandered onto the field.
20. Frat factor
Some college programs still set aside special sections in the stands for the fraternity guys who drink a lot of imported beer they've somehow spirited in, upchuck and make senseless comments about the game unfolding in front of them. Or what they can see of the game. In the NFL, most of those frat-guy boors have long since graduated to the owner's box.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.