In week six of the 2023 season, the San Francisco 49ers and then the Philadelphia Eagles—combined record, 10-0—lost to the Cleveland Browns and the New York Jets—combined record 4-5. The mere record disparities don’t illustrate the improbability of these losses: the Browns team that beat the Niners was without All-World running back Nick Chubb and was down to its third string quarterback, XFL alum PJ Walker. The Jets team that beat the reigning NFC champion Eagles was starting Zach Wilson at quarterback, was missing a star offensive tackle, and was down two excellent cornerbacks before kickoff.
Then, as if to show that total instability and unpredictability is a feature and not a bug, the NFL had, on Sunday Night Football, the powerhouse Buffalo Bills matched up against the dreadful 1-5 New York Giants—and moreover, a Giants team without its starting quarterback. The stage was set for the type of slaughter that’s of interest only to people with Bills players on their fantasy teams. And yet both the first and second half of play ended with the Giants on the Bills’ one yard line, and if either of their two tries had made it—or if they had been less buffoonishly terrible at clock management and kicked a pair of field goals—a third heavily favored team would have lost in the space of three nationally televised games.
Here is a sequence that illustrates the NFL’s unpredictability. In week 3, the Denver Broncos scored twenty points – and were outscored by FIFTY. The team that beat them, the Dolphins, must be the best team in the league, right? Well, in week 4, the Dolphins only scored twenty, and were themselves outscored by four touchdowns – by the Bills! The Bills therefore must be the best team in the league! Well, in week 5, the Bills lose to a confusing Jags team on another continent. And then comes week six and the nailbiter against the Tyrod Taylor-led Giants.
The NFL has always prided itself on its unpredictability. Parity is a league wide goal, and who can argue—the league prints money. But the thing about the unpredictability that makes it interesting is the weight of expectations that pushes the other way. There are good teams and bad teams in the NFL, and the good ones can generally beat the bad ones even with some hiccups. The Niners were a (horrifically) bad officiating call or two away from winning comfortably, and a barely-missed field goal away from sending their game to overtime anyway. The Eagles were up 14-3 before they lost Hall of Famer in waiting Lane Johnson and couldn’t pass protect (or call sensible plays) ever after—and were still leading by two, with possession, at the fifty, at the two minute warning.
If unpredictability were all there was in the NFL—if the teams were randomly generated by a computer the day before the games—there wouldn’t be much of any interest, because there would be no weight of expectations or season-long drama. If there weren’t the unpredictability—if the NFL looked more like College football, when for twenty years Alabama lost once annually—people might just get bored and not bother to tune in. But the NFL seems to have perfected a system where the gradations between teams are real, but so slight that in a volatile and chance-dependent game anything can happen.
The merging Spring Leagues need to lean into their histories to try to create this sense of expectations. Will Birmingham continue to play head and shoulders above the rest of the league, now that a bunch of new teams are being added? That’s the main storyline going into the inaugural merged season. Let’s hope the games continue to be as fun, and considerably less exhausting, than the NFL.