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How we got a Super Bowl of no-names

By Douglas S. Looney Senior sports columnist of The Christian Science Monitor / January 28, 2000



BOULDER, COLO.

Jack Mills, who for 33 years has been one of the preeminent sports agents for top National Football League players, sits in a downtown restaurant, stares into his salmon salad, then decrees: "Dynasties in the NFL are a thing of the past."

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Sunday's Super Bowl game in Atlanta won't star the San Francisco 49ers or Pittsburgh Steelers. Indeed, fans would be hard-pressed to pick two more undynasty-like teams than the St. Louis Rams and the Tennessee Titans. The Rams played for the title once, two decades ago, and lost. The Titans have never qualified before.

Everywhere there is disbelief. Brian Murphy, a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, writes, "Aw, man, not another Tennessee-St. Louis Super Bowl!"

A hotel executive in Las Vegas grumps, "The Rams and Titans? Give me a break."

And in Green Bay, a town introduced to the wonders of dynasties by Vince Lombardi, Packers personnel director Reggie McKenzie mulls the principals in Sunday's game and concludes, "I don't think the fans are ready for this. I think it's kind of shock treatment for them." He chuckles.

It does seem laughable that these two teams are playing, while teams with marquee names but not marquee results this year - including dynasty-conversant Dallas, San Francisco, Green Bay - are not. Even Titan coach Jeff Fisher is surprised to find his team in the Super Bowl: "I've prepared for a lot of things over the years. I didn't prepare for this."

Experts agree there almost certainly will be no more dynasties because parity - a word often said with disdain - has a lock on the NFL. "Parity," writes online columnist, George Stahl, "thy name is the NFL." And in Detroit, Free Press columnist Drew Sharp says that "the late [NFL] commissioner Pete Rozelle is smiling down from the heavens. His dream of parity never looked more real." Parity was Rozelle's top priority - for better or worse.

Americans have long cherished egalitarianism. But nobody wants to see one-sided games.

Still, others argue that "all men are created equal" doesn't mean "all sports teams." America likes symbols of success, kings of the hill - Rockefellers, Kennedys, and yes, even Dallas Cowboys - to inspire awe, love, loathing.

Parity has made Sunday matchups less one-sided. But in the process, many fans feel something has been lost.

But how did parity evolve? Mills lists the factors:

1. The team salary cap, which was instituted in 1994. Under current rules, each organization can spend about $57 million annually on its payroll. The idea is to keep rich owners from being able to buy championships.

Predictably, there is plenty of complicated finagling. Mills says most common is to convert a player's base salary into a signing bonus. Teams stretch these payments over future years (while paying the players up front). This greatly reduces money counted under the salary cap for the current year. But if a player retires, is cut, is traded, or suffers a career-ending injury, the stretched-out cap money becomes accountable immediately.

It's a scheme for teams to win now and figure they'll worry about the future later.