In the NFL, the gap between the haves and have-nots is growing wider
By ADAM KILGORE | The Washington Post | Published: November 6, 2018
The 2018 NFL season, already a delightful rejoinder to the lackluster football of last year, reached its apex Sunday evening. The New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams hurled fireballs at one another. A meeting between Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady beckoned. In the afternoon, Patrick Mahomes had burnished his MVP candidacy with a strikingly routine 375 yards passing. There were great teams and great players doing great things all over the place.
Another moment Sunday revealed the other end of the NFL spectrum, which will color the second half of the season in varied forms. At halftime of the early session, the Buffalo Bills trailed, 28-0. The New York Jets had managed three points. The Oakland Raiders' Thursday night stink bomb still lingered. In contrast to the NFL's dazzling elite, the NFL's dregs were especially rancid.
The NFL is a zero-sum enterprise. When fantastic teams like Kansas City and New Orleans blaze through the league, someone has to soak up the losses. But the poles are further apart this season than ever, likely for reasons beyond plain flukiness. The NFL's second half may be defined by the vast, largely designed gulf between haves and have-nots and the effects it has.
Six teams have two or fewer victories. Another two, the Denver Broncos and Detroit Lions, have three wins and last week traded their best wide receiver for a 2019 draft pick. That's a quarter of the league with no hope. It does not include the New York Jets, who stand 3-6 after a three-game losing streak during which they've averaged 11 points a game.
The deluge of incompetence and/or surrender poses a threat to the product. The league is littered with terrible teams that have either given up hope or dropped the delusion they had any to begin with. Those teams, time and again over the next eight weeks, will pollute the schedule. Ready for Giants-49ers next Monday night?
When one of the best teams plays one of the worst, the result is almost certainly going to be a noncompetitive exercise. Las Vegas bookmakers suffered one of their worst weekends on record Sunday, and that's an insight into the state of the NFL. When favorites win, Vegas suffers. It's typically an any-given-Sunday league, with almost every team clumped together. This year, the gap between the best and worst makes the league far more predictable.
The phenomenon is not an accident. NFL teams have been far more aggressive identifying their place on the contention cycle and more willing to act on it. Andrew Brandt, a former Green Bay Packers executive, listed several reasons. Eagles personnel czar Howie Roseman has always been one of the most active GMs, and because he won the Super Bowl, teams have copied him. More cap space has meant more flexibility for trades. NFL general managers are skewing younger, more aggressive and more collegial. Moving the trade deadline back two weeks allowed teams a more defined evaluation of their in-season hopes, which triggered a burst of trades this year that would be familiar to the NBA or MLB but was previously foreign to the NFL.
"It's a more active league transaction-wise than it used to be," Brandt said. "Maybe that's part of it. Teams used to muddle along with whatever they had and see where it got them."
The state of quarterback play and pay structure also encourages teams to stock up on either talented players for the present or draft picks for the future. Teams with adequate quarterbacks on rookie contracts have an opportunity to fit high-priced talent at other positions under the salary cap — the Rams and Bears took advantage this offseason. Teams with high-priced veteran quarterbacks are, almost by definition, committed to contention. And teams without adequate quarterbacks aren't going anywhere, so they may as well sell off pieces for picks that might position them to draft a franchise passer.
More moves means more pushing toward one competitive extreme or the other. If the Jets approached this year with the single priority of winning as many games as possible, they might be starting Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback. Instead, Bridgewater is serving as Drew Brees insurance in New Orleans, which sent a pick to the Jets at the end of the summer to acquire him. The Chicago Bears have a path to victory in the NFC North primarily because the Raiders decided they'd rather have two first-round picks than Khalil Mack at $25 million per season.
How to define those moves are another matter. When the Lions traded Golden Tate, their best offensive skill player, last week, were they tanking? Or were they wisely accruing a future asset at the cost of a present asset on a team with no chance of Super Bowl contention? The Raiders have willingly unloaded anything that isn't tied down. Does that mean Jon Gruden is a long-term visionary or a $100 million embarrassment?
Either way, the effect on the remainder of the season will be the same. The playoff picture will be shaped by which contenders draw those teams at the bottom of the league. The Minnesota Vikings play only one game, at the Lions, against those nine dregs listed above. The Bears play the Lions twice, plus the 49ers and Giants. In half of their remaining games, the Bears will meet scant resistance, and it may be enough to earn them the NFC North title.
Even though the trade deadline has passed, the difference between the best and worst may only grow wider. The physicality and violence of the sport prevents NFL players from lying down. But for teams long since out of contention, the incentive to tank for better draft picks is strong. Players with mild injuries may be encouraged to sit. Younger players will receive more playing time.
The clashes between the league's very best will continue to drive soaring ratings. Who can wait for Chiefs-Rams in Mexico City on Nov. 19? But there's a consequence to so much talent clustering on a handful of teams, and it's a preponderance of teams lacking talent. Those two extremes will become even more evident over the next two months.