Yup. It's that time again.
Time to use another Super Bowl as an excuse to write maybe my favorite piece of the entire year -- the one in which I get to hold that (cough, cough) paragon of parity, the NFL, up to the blinding light of reality and find (gasp) that pretty much everything the NFL has worked so tirelessly to make you believe (that every darned team has a chance to win every darned year) is a bigger myth than the Loch Ness Monster. Whoah. Who knew?
But, meanwhile, unbeknownst to humankind (or at least the portion of humankind that doesn't read the MLB page on ESPN.com), it's actually baseball that has created a playing field on which just about everyone has a shot to live the postseason dream.
It's even become downright hilarious that every year, when I write this opus, people who don't believe in actual facts start ripping on me as if I'm making this stuff up just because I cover baseball. So let us repeat:
Everything you are about to read is true. Factual. Indisputable. Much as the NFL would love to dispute it. So, ready for that truth parade? Here we go:
• First off, I'd like to thank the Patriots and Seahawks for playing this Sunday, because they’re making this way too easy for me to expose the fiction that permeates the popular wisdom about these two sports.
In football, that popular wisdom goes, "anything can happen." In baseball, on the other hand, it's, "the same teams win every year." Oh, really? Well, let's look more closely at this Super Bowl and see how true that is.
• Let’s start with the Seahawks, a team that hasn’t played in a Super Bowl since, whaddayaknow, the last one. If they win, they would uphold a rich tradition of repeat Super Bowl champs. They’d be the ninth repeater in the Super Bowl era and the fifth in the just past 35 years.
All right, ready for a list of all the repeat World Series winners in baseball over those past 35 years? Here we go:
Blue Jays 1992-93
Hold it. That's all? Yup. That's all -- even in a sport in which "the same teams win every year."
• Now let's move along to the Patriots. What a heartwarming story to find them in the Super Bowl, with or without their deflated footballs. Who ever would have guessed they've now played in nearly half of the past 14 Super Bowls (six of 14)?
Over in baseball, on the other hand, the only example you'll find of anything like that in modern times is (who else?) the Yankees, who showed up in six of eight World Series from 1996 to 2003.
Now I'm not going to pretend that the Yankees' dominance thing never happened. But (A) I need to remind you the Yankees' run also inspired an influx of more significant revenue sharing, which has changed the sport and B) even that streak was an aberration. I can verify that for you, if you'd like.
So how many teams besides those Yankees have played in six out of 14 World Series at any point in basically the past half-century? That would be none. It hadn't happened before that since the 1955-66 Dodgers and 1957-64 Yankees were doing it pretty much concurrently. Of course, back then. the same teams really did win every year. But there were also only 16 of them (at least when those streaks began).
Meanwhile in the NFL, aka the Anything Can Happen League, here's what has actually been happening:
• Boy, thank heaven the same teams don't win every year in football because -- oh wait, did somebody say the Patriots are in the Super Bowl?
Hey, of course, they are -- because over in the wide-open AFC, the Patriots, Broncos, Colts, Ravens and Steelers play in pretty much every Super Bowl.
Go check this out if you don't believe me, but I swear this is true: Just those five teams have represented the AFC in the past 12 Super Bowls in a row. Yeah, 12. And 17 of the past 19. Seriously.
Luckily, the NFL has totally mastered the art of parity, so you Jaguars fans, take heart. Your fine squad can expect to stampede into one of these Super Bowls any decade now.
• But at least anything can happen in the rounds leading up to the Super Bowl, right? Except that -- uh oh, hold on a second -- it turns out that pretty much the same stuff keeps happening year after year. Just take a look at the NFL's final four playoff teams. How 'bout this group of upstarts:
The Patriots -- who have made the playoffs six years in a row and 11 of the past 12.
The Seahawks -- who have made it four of the past five years and nine of the past 12.
The Colts -- who have been a playoff team in 12 of the past 13 years.
The Packers -- who have been there six seasons in a row, seven of the past eight, 11 of the past 14 and 17 of the past 22.
So think about this. In a league in which (ahem) anything can happen, those four teams have made 21 playoff appearances in the past six years (the maximum possible would have been 24) and 40 times in the past 12 years (the max would have been 48).
Hmmm. I don't know why, but I'm guessing that if you look up "parity" in one of those online dictionaries, you won't find a link to this blog post.
• Well then, obviously, that parity is showing up in other ways. Yeah, that's the ticket. So let's search for it in the other four playoff teams in the NFL's final eight, among which we find (oh, noooo):
The Ravens -- a playoff team in six of the past seven seasons and seven of nine.
The Broncos -- a playoff team four years in a row and 11 of the past 19.
The Panthers -- a playoff team for the second straight year.
The Cowboys -- a playoff team for the first time since 2009 but also a playoff team in 13 of the past 24 years.
Wait. Really? Oops.
• Then again, that might have something to do with this: The NFL has eight divisions. And you know who won six of them? The same team that won the year before. And the two who missed -- the Bengals and Eagles -- were literally a bounce of the ball away from making it eight out of eight. Parity at its finest and shiniest, wouldn't you say?
• But finally, it doesn't seem fair to just look at this season when we have so many other parity-filled seasons to choose from. Did you know that if we look at the past 30 Super Bowls, you can find nine teams in the NFL that have played in, well, none of them?
And that more than half the teams in the sport (17 of 32, to be exact) have avoided winning any of them?
And that, no matter who wins Sunday, a mere eight teams will have combined to win 24 of the past 30 Super Bowls?
Gosh, you can't beat that for never-ending, unpredictable madness, can you?
• So how does the NFL's sparkling record compare with baseball's? Glad you asked.
First of all, there’s this: All but six baseball teams have played in at least one of the past 30 World Series, and 17 teams have won one. No matter how you do the math, at least 12 teams have divvied up the champagne in 24 of the past 30 World Series, even though the Yankees have won five of them all by themselves. How'd that happen in a sport in which the "same teams win every year?"
• OK, OK. I know what you're thinking: What about the Giants, who have won three of the past five World Series? And how is the AFC so different than the National League, in which the Giants, Cardinals and Phillies have represented the NL in the past seven World Series and nine of the past 11?
Well, obviously, it's not that different. It's not my thing to pretend it is. But I bet I can still make the case that baseball has at least as much parity as the Anything Can Happen League, and here's how:
• Let's start with how much turnover there is in the makeup of teams that reach the playoffs in any given year. Here's a little chart for you from the past six seasons, listing the number of teams that made the playoffs after missing them the year before (see table on right).
• So digested all that yet? I can help. This makes five years in a row in which baseball has flukily had a better percentage of new playoff teams than the National Parity League. No kidding.
And you'd have to go all the way back to 2005 to find a season in which more than half of the baseball playoff field was comprised of teams that had been there the previous year.
Want to compare percentages over those nine seasons? No, you don't. In the NFL, 58.3 percent of all playoff teams were repeaters from the year before. The percentage in baseball: 39.7. Oops.
• Over the past 10 seasons, 90 percent of the franchises in baseball have made the postseason. That's 27 of 30 (everyone but the Marlins, Blue Jays and Mariners.)
In the NFL over the same span, just 87.5 percent have made the playoffs. That would be 28 of 32 (everyone but the Rams, Bills, Raiders and Browns).
Yeah, that seems pretty close, except for one thing: The NFL has had nearly 40 percent more playoff spots available to be won in those 10 seasons (128) than baseball has had (86). So you probably won't find that note in any NFL parity presentations, either.
• In the NFL, it's truly the land of extra-special opportunity, since even minor technicalities such as, oh, having a winning record aren't always necessary. The NFL has now had two playoff teams in the past five seasons that actually lost more games than they won, whereas baseball has had zero losing teams participating in its postseason since the invention of postseasons. Just thought I'd mention that.
• Another amusing myth about baseball is that only teams with money can win. Which makes total sense -- other than the fact that five of the nine teams with the highest Opening Day payrolls missed the playoffs in 2014. Three of them finished last (Red Sox, Rangers, Phillies.) And of the teams with the 12 highest Opening Day payrolls, exactly one of them (the Giants) even won a series in October. Just two (Giants and Nationals) even won a postseason game. So, er, never mind on that money theory.
• Finally, let's face it, friends. When people try to tell you "the same teams win every year" in baseball, you know what they're really talking about, right? The Yankees.
Yeah, the Yankees sure win every year nowadays, don't they? Other than the fact that they've played in one of the past 11 World Series, that is, and that, in seven of the past 10 seasons, they haven't won a single postseason series.
So there you go. I think it's clear there is, in fact, an Anything Can Happen League. I just have one question: Are you sure it's the league you thought it was?