Ronald Reagan might not be totally familiar with parity, but Pete Rozelle is. If the NFL commissioner showed much outward emotion, this would be the year to do handsprings on Park Avenue, for all of his teams are more equal than ever. The Steelers appear mortal -- at last -- and there is just one memorably awful team, the Saints.
Ironically, however, having established that Giants actually can slay Cowboys these days and that Packers and Chiefs are almost competitive, it must be said that the playoff races in one entire conference are over five weeks before the final regular-season games.
That would be in the National Conference, where four teams Philadelphia, Dallas, Atlanta and Los Angeles -- have established themselves as superior to the nine others. They will provide two divisional winners and both wild-card positions in the playoffs.
Nobody will win the NFC Central.
Four certified mediocrities will manae to lose the title and some team -- possibly even 4-6-1 Tampa Bay -- will be declared the winner, by default. The Lions are self-destructing later than usual this year but the Vikings, also 6-5 and tied for first, have the tougher remaining schedule. They play two real teams, from the AFC, the Browns and Oilers, during their stretch drive.
Like anyone with more than an ounce of emotion, I'm rooting desperately for the Oilers to make the Super Bowl and win it. By the serious NFL playoff month January, they just might be acquainted enough with one another to be rolling smoothly toward that goal. They surely have sacrificed the most to be the best this season.
Coach Bum Phillips seems to have realized his team will be special only as long as Earl Campbell stays healthy -- and that might not be more than a year or so longer. So he has taken a hug swig of George Allen's elixir and declared the future is now for Houston.
Phillips traded a No. 1 draft choice to New England for a superior blocker, tackle Leon Gray, last season. he traded for a playoff-tested quarterback, Ken Stabler, before this season. He traded for the best pass-catching tight end alive, Dave Casper, during this season.
When the Campbell-Stabler-Casper gusher goes dry, the Oilers will be ordinary for years. But Phillips is as close to being one of us as anyone in corporate sports, and somebody with his humble background and sense of humor deserves to win the gamble of his football life.
"We knocked on the (Super Bowl) door last year (1978)," Phillips told a Houston crowd that greeted the team after its controversial playoff loss to the Steelers. "We beat on it this year. New year we're gonna kick that SOB in."
The door is more than ready to be kicked in. It is half-swinging now that the Steelers are in such a surprising fog -- and also hurting. Who before the season could have imagined the Falcons making the playoffs and the Steelers not? That is a very real possibility.
Before the opening game -- against the Oilers -- Steeler Coach Chuck Noll said of Phillip's kick-the-door-in pledge: "there are lots of doors. He better know which one to kick. It might be to the outhouse."
The Steelers won that game, the one lots of us considered the most critical of their season, the one we thought would establish their superiority over the second-best team in the NFL and allow them to settle into a swift cruising speed throgh the season and onto their fifth Super Bowl victory in seven years.
Instead, it is the Steelers who have wandered into the NFL's outhouse.
The Steelers, like everyone else except the Eagles, have not found a way to play consistently tough defense. With the liberalized rules on pass blocking and coverage the last few years, almost everybody is throwing, and throwing well.
The most mind-jolting statistic of the season, of many seasons in fact, came from the Buc-Viking game last week. Those two teams passed 96 times.
Now that's incredible.
For most of a coaching career both rich and richly frustrating, Bud Grant has been deeply conservative. His idea of a socko play was to send a snowmobile up the middle. His Vikings passed 40 times last Sunday.
And who can remember more than one quarterback who played for John McKay at Southern California? Most of his players ran to daylight more than they ran to class. McKay's Bucs passed 56 times against Grant's Vikings.
Combined, they gained more than 800 yards and scored 68 points.
This fancy passing will not be a passing fancy.
The colleges also are pass crazy.
"I think we're seeing the end of the running-back era in college football," said the personnel wizard of the Dallas Cowboys, Gil Brandt."I think George Rogers this year marks the end of it." Of course, Brandt has heard of Herschel Walker. Of course, Brandt knows that Jerry Claiborne and some others still will run the tails off their tailbacks. Still, he sees a trend.
"With the exception of Oklahoma, most of the top teams are developing passers and receivers," he said. "When Ohio State and Michigan start emphasizing the pass, you know it's here to stay. Last year, three primarily passing teams -- Wake Forest, Tulane and Indiana -- went to bowls.
"I think that what's happening has as much of an impact on college football as the jump shot replacing the one-hand set did in college basketball."
Why the change?
"One reason is that passing puts people in the stands, and some colleges have been in financial trouble for a while. Face it. Running is not exciting unless you're winning. And even teams that win regularly by running aren't selling out all the time.
"Also, I don't think you can upset anybody by running the ball, say, 30 times or so. Or at least with any regularity. I think we're going from one era to another, and we won't get back to running until somebody comes up with a new formation and does well.
"We all copy success."