The NFL is discussing expanding the playoffs to 14 or 16 teams, as announced by Roger Goodell yesterday. This is not necessarily a new proposal. It was discussed a decade ago. The league has expanded the playoffs at various points in its history, going to four teams in each conference at the merger in 1970, adding a fifth wildcard in 1978, and adding a sixth team in each conference in 1990.
The discussion came in the aftermath of the ruling on Bountygate, and a situation where Goodell is trying to turn the discussion as quickly as possible. It also is being cast as some sort of “solution” to the preseason “problem” where the league can now say, “you don’t want 18 games? well, let’s do this instead.”
I’m not buying it as an alternative to the preseason or 18 game schedule. The timing would not change at all if the expansion just eliminated byes.
The initial reaction was negative, and I get that. People generally hate change. I don’t like a flat increase. I think it is a money grab without concern for the playoff product, and more importantly, how it will impact the end of the regular season. Here, by the way, are the win totals of the teams that would have finished as the #7 seed and #8 seed since 2002.
The #7 finisher in a conference averaged just over 9 wins, and was just as likely to have 10+ wins as 8. the #8 finisher, on the other hand, was more likely to have 8 or fewer wins than 9 or more. Only one 10 win team would have finished #8 (Tampa Bay in 2010). Two would have been 7-9. I’m not sure we need a more likely than not probability of a 14-2 team hosting a 8-8 or 7-9 team in round one. If playoff teams resting starters and making games look exactly like a preseason contest, taking away a bye in front of that type of matchup won’t help.
However, I did think there’s a way to expand the playoffs sensibly, and it’s a proposal I originally wrote about five years ago (that I’m sure 200 people read), and I’ll expand on it here.
The only way I would want to see expanded playoffs was if it was necessary in a given year. The model is golf, a sport where there is a cut line, but the number of players that can make the cut expands if they are within 10 strokes of the leader. In essence, the leader sets the bar, and can eliminate other players by being more dominant.
So here is my (revised) proposal:
- A minimum of 6 teams will make the postseason in each conference;
- A seventh team can make it if (a) they have at least 9 wins, and (b) are within 3 games of the 2nd best record in the conference;
- An eighth team can make it if (a) they have at least 9 wins, and (b) are within 3 games of the best record in the conference;
- Once the teams are determined, get rid of the “automatic home game, #4 seed” for division winners and seed teams by record, making winning a division the first tiebreaker.
That’s it. The net effect is this: every team that won at least 10 games in the last decade would have made the postseason. Every #1 and #2 seed except for Atlanta in 2004 (because the NFC was so bad only four teams had winning records) that failed to win more than 12 games would have had to play a first round game. All told, there were thirteen #7 seeds that would have made it, and only three #8 seeds.
Sixteen teams in ten years. Of course, if the rules were in place, the top seeds would try to win through all sixteen games, and the number probably would not have been sixteen. A game like New York at Atlanta would have even greater meaning. No weak number #7 or #8 seeds with 8-8 records would get in. Teams would be incentivized to play hard. Teams would also have some certainty in knowing 10 wins gets you in.
The television aspect would have to be worked out, but that’s something smart people can do. World Series and NBA playoffs contracts are negotiated without knowing the specific number of games. Under my proposal, there would have been two years with no extra playoff teams, three with one extra, two with two extra, and three more with three teams getting into an expanded field.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]