One of the great myths about the NFL is that the salary cap affords the league much better competitive balance than is possible in the cap-less Major League Baseball. This would not be a good week to be promoting that myth, seeing that the New York Giants and New England Patriots have become what Meryl Streep and George Clooney are to the Oscars. Ho-hum. The Giants and Patriots have filled one-third of the available spots over the past 12 Super Bowls.
In baseball, the prevailing thought is that the Yankees, Phillies and Red Sox spend their way to dominance while the "even playing field" of the NFL gives more teams a pathway to compete for the championship. It's simply not true. And it's not true whether you go back a decade, or all the way back to 1995 (the last time baseball expanded the postseason) or even all the way back to 1970 (the year of the NFL-AFL merger).
Take a look at how many franchises reached the Super Bowl and reached the World Series according to those timelines:
What you find is that despite very different economic systems, there is no discernable difference in parity when it comes to playing for the championship in each sport.
What about teams that won the Super Bowl or World Series? Again, you won't find a noticeable difference in the spread of championships. Since 1995, 10 franchises have won the World Series, including four that have done so more than once. In that same period, 11 franchises have won the Super Bowl, including four that have done so more than once.
So go ahead and complain all you want about baseball's economic system. It has its flaws, including the gap in payroll disparity. But when it comes to getting teams through to the championship round, it is no different than the hallowed system in the NFL.
The Montreal Expos used two of their first 18 picks in the 1995 draft on left-handed hitting high school catchers. The first, taken in the fifth round, is still playing in the majors: Brian Schneider of the Phillies. The other, taken in the 18th round, is playing Sunday in the Super Bowl: Tom Brady of the Patriots, formerly of Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, Calif.
Dating to the likes of Andrew Dawson, the Expos had a strong tradition of taking multi-sport athletes and turning them into full-time ballplayers. With Brady, they could not convince him to give up the chance to play quarterback at the University of Michigan. Brady and his parents had made it well known that he preferred football over baseball. Otherwise, he would have been drafted much higher.
John Hughes was Montreal's local scout who recommended Brady to national crosschecker Dave Littlefield (now with the Cubs) and scouting director Ed Creech (now with the Giants). Hughes (now with the Marlins) even arranged to have Brady visit the Expos' clubhouse when the team played at Candlestick Park in June that year.
"He was a tall, kind of lanky lefthanded hitting catcher who already had signed to go to Michigan," Littlefield said. "He was a smooth, fluid athlete with a big athletic body. He had that nice, rhythmic, smooth swing you see from lefthanded hitters at 18 and you know with time they get bigger and stronger and add more power and snap to their swing.
"He was probably 6-foot-3, about 190 pounds. He definitely projected as a catcher. He threw well. Really, he did everything pretty well. He wasn't a great runner, but he was a very good athlete."
Among the future big leaguers drafted after Brady were Aaron Miles, Mike Lowell and Juan Pierre. It was a big draft for quarterbacks. Another future NFL quarterback, Chad Hutchinson, was taken in the first round by Atlanta, but did not sign. And former Tennessee quarterback Todd Helton went in the first round to Colorado.
Last year I told you before the Super Bowl about the key factor to the game: Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers was a far better indoor quarterback than Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger. I wrote, "The splits suggest that Rodgers, the better pure passer, gains a big edge over Roethlisberger with the Super Bowl being played indoors. Advantage, Packers."
Rodgers outplayed Roethlisberger by a wide margin (111.5-77.4 in passer ratings) and Green Bay won. Rodgers was the MVP.
So what will happen this year as the Super Bowl, to be played in Indianapolis, once again is an inside job? I don't see a wide gap between Tom Brady and the Giants' Eli Manning, but I do see how the Super Bowl could turn into a shootout. Only four teams ever have lost the Super Bowl scoring at least 25 points (1978 Cowboys, 1994 Chargers, 2003 Panthers, 2010 Steelers), and we just might see it for a second straight year.
Let's face it, the NFL has built its growth on quarterback play and, understanding that, has facilitated rules changes (severely enforced roughing, allowing receivers to run unimpeded, etc.) to keep quarterbacks healthy and footballs flying.
Defense does not win championships anymore. The Patriots and Giants rank among the worst defenses in the 32-team NFL in points allowed (15th and 25th, respectively), pass defense (31st, 29th), passing touchdowns allowed (22nd, 25th), yards per pass attempt (29th, 23rd) and quarterback rating against (21st and 20th). And it's not as if they force teams into the air by stopping the run (24th and 22nd in yards per rushing attempt). The Patriots and Giants are in the Super Bowl because they make more plays on offense than their opponents. Each team has an elite pure passer who especially can thrive indoors.
When you take this wide-open game of modern football and remove all field and weather elements, you get a sanitized, studio version of the sport that favors the forward pass. This is the 15th Super Bowl to be played indoors (all but two of those on artificial surfaces).
I do wish the NFL and the people who cover it did more in highlighting the difference between football in the elements and football with the elements removed. For instance, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner are masters of the indoor game, but combined they never won a postseason game in freezing temperatures. Brady is 9-2 in postseason games played at 32 degrees and colder.
The Giants and Patriots don't seem to have enough history to allow a really good handle on how they fare indoors. New York played three indoor games this year (at Arizona, Dallas and New Orleans) and its defense got scorched for an average of 36 points and 463 yards per game. But Manning lit it up under domes: 376 yards passing per game with six touchdowns and two interceptions.
It's a small sample, but still bigger than the one New England affords. The Patriots did not play indoors all year and had only one such game last season. But dating to the Super Bowl XLII loss to the Giants, the Patriots are 1-5 in their last six games indoors. (Brady missed one of those games with a knee injury.)
So without the kind of obvious edge the last Super Bowl provided, this time expect a battle of quarterbacks that could go either way. And keep this in mind when it comes to the star of the game: Between them Brady and Manning already have three Super Bowl MVP awards -- all of them won indoors.