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Praying to the Parity Gods
Sacrificing quality for equality
April 25, 2002

Drew Bledsoe is a Bill, and thankfully so. This is the NFL -- the place where superior football talent, allegedly, is showcased. It would have been simply embarrassing for Bledsoe to go through 2003 wearing a headset and a baseball cap; the sport, as a whole, would be worse off. And it almost happened. Unlike hand-grenades and horseshoes, "almost" is not enough to blow a hole in the NFL. But itís certainly a warning sign.

Bledsoe cost the Bills merely one pick, in next yearís #1. It cost the Tampa Bay Buccanneers four draft picks -- including their first round pick both this year and next -- and $8 million in cash to land Jon Gruden, a coach. No knock on Gruden, who is simply a great coach, but Bledsoeís a bonafide star at perhaps the most important position in any sport. A player with All-Pro credentials, he can make a bad team into a contender, and a contender into a favorite. Yet Bledsoe went for a song, while Grudenís services demanded a Kingís ransom. What gives?

Blame it on the salary cap. Or, more accurately, blame the NFLís sadly successful attempt to gerrymander teams under the banner of parity. While equality between teams is a worthwhile goal, the cost cannot be on-field quality.

Thereís no doubting that teams are more equal in todayís NFL than even that of the mid-90s. Bledsoeís former team, the New England Patriots, followed their hapless 5-11 campaign of 2000 with a bookiesís-nightmare championship in 2001. The 2000 Chicago Bears also went 5-11; in 2001, they were 13-3. And the 1999 NFL Champion Baltimore Ravens have, due to the salary cap, lost a number of star players this off-season; a sub-.500 2002 would not be a surprise.

So, yeah, we have parity. Or at least more of it than during the Dallas Cowboy dynasty, or the 49er one that preceded it, or the Steeler one before that. But at the same time, there are players like Elvis Grbac and Cris Carter who, for all intents and purposes, are forced into retirement. Similarly, superstar players like Bledsoe come dangerously close to getting stuck with backup jobs.

There are a good number of teams for whom Bledsoe would have been a vast improvement at quarterback, Buffalo excluded. Before the Bledsoe-to-Bills trade, the Lions, Panthers, Cowboys, and to a lesser extent, the Chiefs, all were in need of a signal-caller. All had top-10 draft picks this year. Based on the Bills successful offer, any of the four teams could have landed Bledsoe. A rumor here, some gossip there, but in the end, none of the quartet showed any real interest in Bledsoe.

The Cincinnati Bengals were an early favorite in the Bledsoe hunt, but after the QBís agent rebuffed their overtures, the Cincycats turned their attention to other needs. Cincy has filled most of those other holes, but does anyone truly consider them a Super Bowl contender? The team boasts John Kitna, Akili Smith, and Scott Mitchell at quarterback. Gus Frettote -- who has played only twenty-five games over the last four years -- is hoping to swoop into the starting job. This motley QB crew is far from that of a champion, and certainly not one fans will shell out money to see.

Finally, the Redskins. Washington was in the market for a veteran quarterback, but never went after the 30 year-old Bledsoe. (Bledsoe has almost 30,000 career passing yards and over 150 TDs.) Instead, Washington focused on 32 year-old Shane Matthews and his 3,461 yard, 19 TD career. Meanwhile, Matthews has been such a hot commodity that he was simply released by the Chicago Bears, in favor of such superstar backups like Chris Chandler and Henry Burris. And in the end, the Redskins went a third way -- they drafted Tulane QB Patrick Ramsey with their first round pick; a pick that, in hindsight, could have been traded to New England for a proven commodity in Bledsoe.

In each case, the sticking point for possible Bledsoe destinations was neither trade terms nor money. It was cap room, plain and simply. The salary cap aims to make bad teams better while limiting options for the stronger clubs. Instead, it came awfully close to enshrining Bledsoe as a high-priced backup for the defending World Champs, while tying the hands of six teams that failed to make the playoffs. While Bledsoe is too much a cap burden for lesser teams, prospects and backups like Ramsey, Kitna, Frerotte, Dallasí Quincy Carter and Mike McMahon fighting for starting jobs.

This is the pinnacle of football abilities? Clearly not, to the detriment of the overall product -- not just to the Bengals and Cowboys. If fans wanted to see a game in which the players were basically irrelevant but, on any given Sunday, either team could win, the XFL would have been a ratings monster.

And "He Hate Me" isnít going to be on a Nielsen-topper unless heís on the next Survivor.

People want to see the best product possible; itís why we shell out $25 for a ticket to a professional baseball game (and then another $3 on a hotdog), but wonít spend fifty cents to see seven-year-olds play tee-ball. For a World Championship to mean something, the best players in the world need to be participating. A league that comes dangerously close to putting Bledsoe on the sidelines is the exact opposite of a quality product.