he only immutable rule in the NFL is change - rapid, disorienting, seemingly inexplicable change.
Teams in all sports go through winning and losing cycles, but usually those changes of fortune are gradual and easy to comprehend.
Not so in the NFL.
If the won-lost records of every profootball team over the last 15 seasons are charted on a graph, the result is surprising.
With only a couple of exceptions, the NFL graphs look like the earthquake readings along the San Andreas Fault.
In the boom-or-bust NFL, it is almost impossible for a team to remain either extremely good or atrociously bad for long.
This year's 2-12 abomination is odds on to be a 10-4 contender in a year or three.
The opposite is also true. After a few years as contenders, excellent teams do not merely slip to .500. When they fall, they usually go to the bottom.
This NFL pattern is a complete contrast to other professional team sports - especially baseball, the game from which a century of Americans have developed their ideas of what an orderly sports universe is about.
In baseball the New York Yankees, Brooklyn/Los ANgeles Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds, Baltimore Orioles and old New York Giants built firm foundations that kept them near the top of leagues from 15 to 40 years. Winning bred winning.
And losing begot losing. Witness the eons during which the Washington Senators, Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs lurked at the bottom of the standings - sometimes almost a half-century at a stretch.
of the NFL's current 28 franchises, 25 of them have been legitimate play-off powers at some time in the last 15 years. And two of the three leftouts are the latest expansion teams - Seattle and Tampa.
New Orleans, that dismal loser for all 11 years of its existence, is the only team in pro football that has not had at least one seasonal winning percentage of .643 (9.5) or better, since 1962.
The other half of the winning-losing coin is even more amazing. All 28 NFL franchises have in the last 15 years had at least one team that was so bad that its winning percentage was .357 (5-9) or worse.
The roller coaster from big winner to big loser and back is staggering in the NFL. Almost every team has had the bewildering experience in relatively recent times.
A few examples: The Baltimore Colts have gone from 10-4 ('71) to 2-12 ('74) and back to 10-4 ('75) in only five years.
Both the St. Louis Cardinals and New Giants have been made the nerve-wracking transition from winner to loser, or loser back to winner, nine times each in the last 15 years.
The Cardinals won-lost graph is the despair of any devoted St. Louis fan. In one 10-year span ('62 to '71), the Cards crossed the .500 line eight times. And not by small margins. The percentages jerked spasmodically from .615 to .462 to .692 to .308 to .615 to .308.
The Giants made even more dramatic leaps and dives. From a powerhouse in '62 , the New Yorkers plummeted to 3-11 by '64. Then the real nuttiness began. From 1-12-1 in '66, the mark jumped to 7-7 the next year. After a 9-5 mark in '70, the bottom fell out to 4-10 the next year. After climbing back to 8-6 in '72, the club collapsed to 2-11-1 the following year.
The Minnesota Vikings rose from 3-11 in '67 to 12-2 in '69. Oakland jumped from 1-13 to 10-4 in one year. The Chicago Bears toppled from NFL champs in '63 to 5-9 the next year. The Los Angeles Rams rose from 1-12-1 in '62 to 12-2 in '67.
It is almost a rule that new NFL franchises make an incredibly rapid assent. New England spiked from 3-11 to 11-3 in '76 in a single season. Miami was the pits (3-10-1) in 1969, then posted the best record in history (17-0) three years later. Since the Dolphins have fallen to 6-8 and risen to 9-3 this year. That's right, Miami went from 3-10-1 to 17-0 and back to 6-8 in only eight years.
he samples go on and on. The New York Jets went from 14-3 world champs to 4-10 bums in two years. The Buffalo Bills seemed hopeless at 1-13 in '71, but barely missed the playoffs at 9-5 in '73. Pittsburgh made the quantum jumps from 1-13 in '69 to 11-3 in '72.
How can Houstan go from back-to-back 1-13 seasons to 10-4 in '75 with just one year in between? How can the Kansas City Chiefs' dynasty collapse overnight?
Even the two most consistently superior teams of recent times - Dallas in the NFC and Oakland in the AFC - are merely a proof of how hard it is for an abysmal pro team to stay bad. The Radiers made the jump to hyperspace (1-13 to 10-4) in their sophomore season. The Cowboys were 10-3-1 by their fifth year of existance after being doormats their first three seasons.
Why are the Raiders and Cowpokes the only teams who have been over .500 every season for the last decade - Oakland running off 13 straight winning years and Dallas a dozen.
Why is New Orleans the only consistent sub-.500 team for that same decade?
How can a team that seemed to become rich only yesterday - the Washington Redskin - actually have the third-longest streak of winning years in the NFL (six entering this season)?
The reasons are not hard to find. The NFL is proud of them, and markets them delight. They are cornerstones of the pro football edifice. After all, nothing beats the hope-of-quick-success and the fear-of-instant-failure for stimulating fan interest.
The manic NFL temperament - with its breathless proclamations about winning is the only thing, losing is like dying, the future is now fits the fabrics of a sport in which uncertainty and overnight reverses of fortune are built into the ground rules of the game.
The college football draft is the NFL's No. 1 equalizer and perhaps its greatest asset. Colleges provide ready-made professionals at no cost and no delay. With no lag-time for minor league development, a team transforms rather quickly by building around an O.J. Simpson or a Bert Jones.
Baseball and hockey, despite their drafts, have long-range minor league systems; the rich can keep themselves rich.
Pro football is a sport that emphasizes and exalts the head coach. The NFL is a master builders' medium. A brilliant workaholic Vince Lombardi, George Allan or Don Shula-type seems almost essential for NFL success. When they change cities, so does the football balance of power.
The wild oscillation in the NFL also is linked to the shorter professional life span of football players. It is gospel that a nucleus of superstars is necessary for a Super Bowl triumph. But that nucleus is more unstable than uranium. A few knee injuries, a premature retirement and some bad breaks can turn a 12-2 team into a 5-9 struggle in a year or two.
A great runner - Simpson, Gale Sayers or Larry Brown - may be at his peak for five years then disappear, put a standout baseball pitcher may win 200 game in 10 years and continue to be an asset for several more seasons.
Those single great stars of football probably mean more to their team than any basebll player.
The all-pro halfback can carry 30 times in a big game, the passer can throw 40 bullets. The whole game carries his stamp.Even the best pitcher only works one game in four. And the greatest hitters only bat four times a game and call one home run every four days an excellent ratio.
The combination of high incidence of injury, short career span of superstars and a draft that theoretically gives the 21-year-old instant immortals to the worst teams is a system that insures chaos and thrives on it.
one of the great eternal debates of philosophy has concerned the nature of history: is it cyclical or is it dominated by the genius and will of a few great men?
In the NFL, both theories of history seems to be at work simultaneously. The strings of victory and defeat supplant each other rapidly. But those spectacular fluctuations are the result of a few outstanding individuals - some of them in cleats, other holding clipboards.