How we got a Super Bowl of no-names

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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."

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!"

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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.

2. Teams with the most money obviously are best able to come up with the millions of dollars needed for the so-called signing bonus or restructured contracts. Their money comes from sweet stadium rents, luxury boxes, and the like.

Yet this can give rich teams salary-cap problems. The San Francisco 49ers have had the financial ability to defer huge amounts of salaries over a long period. But eventually, the money all has to be accounted for. That's why the 49ers are in a world of hurt these days.

3. With the liberal free-agent rules, teams cannot keep all their best players because they can't afford them under the salary cap.

There is talk in the NFL, led by Bronco coach Mike Shanahan, to adopt a rule similar to the one in the NBA that would allow teams to exceed the salary cap in order to re-sign their own free agents.

In Green Bay, McKenzie says if a team drafts well, "it drafts maybe seven good players, all of whom will become good pro players. Because of the cap, there's no way you can keep all seven, even though you may want to. So parity is working."

4. Salary-cap issues can create ill will on teams. Starters are paid substantially more than backups, which hasn't always been the case. Too, journeyman veterans are particularly vulnerable to the cap. Example: A veteran with more than four years in the league must be paid at least $400,000; a rookie $175,000.

5. The worse a team is, the higher picks it gets in the draft; the worse a team is, the easier the schedule it is given for the next year.

6. Again, unlike in the past, essentially all information on college players is shared prior to the draft, including speed and strength. Says Mills, "There are not that many secrets."

There are differences of opinion on whether parity is good or bad. One fan wrote The Sporting News griping that "the overall quality of the games has suffered because too many teams are mediocre."

Reggie McKenzie, a five-year NFL linebacker, disagrees. "I enjoy watching other games more now," he says, "because it's interesting to watch a 1-7 team beat a 6-2 team. I got tired of watching the NFL and knowing who was going to win."

And while McKenzie admits fans probably prefer seeing the dynasty-like teams that elude the parity trap, he says, "I don't want to see total dominance." Says Mills. "The system is working. It's good for football."

Who knows what will work for this year's participants. The Rams are the third-highest-scoring team in NFL history, with an unknown quarterback (Kurt Warner) who just five seasons ago was stocking grocery shelves in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The Titans rely on QB Steve McNair, known as Air McNair when he arrived from Alcorn State. But he can dazzle with his running so he has become Hare McNair.

St. Louis was first in total offense in the NFL, Tennessee 13th. St. Louis was sixth in total defense, Tennessee 17th. Heretofore, both underachieved so badly - St. Louis 4-12 last two years, Tennessee 8-8 the last three - that both head coaches, Dick Vermeil and Fisher, seemed on the verge of being fired.

Whichever team wins, Mills says parity will be the operative word, not dynasty.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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