Time for an NFL Sweet 16

March 27, 2014 by Greg A. Bedard

ORLANDO – The expanded playoffs are coming, sooner rather than later. That much was certain in listening to several coaches and owners, and then commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday.

“I think there’s a tremendous amount of interest in this, possibly even to the point of support, but there are also things we still want to make sure we do it right,” Goodell said. “We’ve been very incremental in trying to do this, but we believe competitively it could make even our races toward the end of our season even more exciting, with more teams vying for playoff positions, which is great for our fans.”

Goodell has been ramping up the rhetoric on playoff expansion for the past several months. That means this is something his bosses, the owners, want. And if we’ve learned anything watching the NFL sausage being made, it is thatwhatever the owners want, they will eventually get.

So it’s time to stop the whining about postseason expansion. Cease with the arguments about how everything is perfect right now and doesn’t need to messed with. Stop talking about how the regular season will be watered down. Maybe those things are, to some extent, true (I have serious doubts about that), but it doesn’t matter. Playoff expansion is coming whether you like it or not. So it’s time to advance the discussion to what is ultimately more important: deciding how expanding the playoffs should be done.

My position: Forget adding just one team per conference; let’s go full bore into expanding the playoffs by adding two per conference, getting rid of the byes and making it a true tournament with a March Madness feel, complete with the Cinderella factor. Let’s make it a completely level playing field that would leave no doubt that the best team hoists the Lombardi Trophy in February.

Like many of you, I was against the idea of playoff expansion. It’s all about creating more revenue, and I’m tired of sacrificing the game for the sake of dollars (rules being tilted towards offenses, for example). But I’ve come around to the point where I don’t hate the idea.

The more teams in the postseason, the more assured we are that the cream rises to the top.

If an 18-game regular season is a non-starter with the players’ union, expanding the playoffs is the only option for possibly eliminating two preseason games. Making NFL fans, especially season ticket holders, suffer and pay for four meaningless games featuring a putrid product has been a shameful fleecing by owners.

“Hopefully it prompts us to maybe look at reducing the preseason,” Ravens owners Steve Bisciotti said of the expanded playoffs. “[The two] aren’t exactly hand-in-hand, but I think we’re trending in that vein, and I’d like to see that too.

Playoff expansion is actually way overdue. The current 12-team format was put in place in 1990, when there were 28 teams and six divisions. Now there are 32 teams and eight divisions. It’s time for a modification.

And after looking at the numbers (see table below), expanding the playoffs by one or even two teams would not suddenly invite some sort of seedy element into the regular or postseason. If a seventh team had included in each conference over the past 10 years, that team would have had a winning record 70% percent of the time (14 of 20 teams), and never a losing record. Expand that to eight teams, and the extra participants would have included 22 teams with winning records, 16 with .500 records and just two additional 7-9 teams (5 percent).

Wins 7th Seed 8th Seed
11 1 0
10 5 1
9 8 7
8 6 10
7 0 2
 

I’m OK with a few more 8-8 teams getting into the playoffs. We’re not talking about baseball (162 games) or basketball (82 games), where the number of regular-season games makes it a certainty that .500 team is indeed mediocre. The NFL season is just 16 games. Given the unbalanced schedules and deep-seated parity caused by the salary cap and draft order, winning in the NFL is hard. An 8-8 record is not necessarily a true indicator of a team’s worth. An 8-8 team in one division could be two games better in another based on schedule alone. Even within a division, some teams get an edge by playing the tougher interdivisional teams at home. The more teams in the postseason, the more assured we are that the cream rises to the top and didn’t get there because of a lucky draw. Injuries, too, have a profound impact on records. Should one team be virtually eliminated because its franchise quarterback got rolled up on and missed six games? Expanding the playoff field would give those teams another chance to prove their worth.

And, really, I fail to find the great travesty in letting a few more 8-8 teams in the playoffs. Either they prove to be better than their record, or they’re quickly eliminated. What’s so terrible about that? And remember the 7-9 Seahawks defeating New Orleans in the playoffs in January 2011? (Though Seattle did get to play that game at home, as a consequence of winning the division.)

That leads to the discussion about whether the playoffs should be expanded to 14 or 16 teams. Any expansion will lead to a change in the bye system, in which currently the two teams with the best records earn the cushy ride of sitting out the first round and only needing to win one home game to advance to the final four. I’ve long hated the bye system, but least with two teams getting byes, you could reasonably be assured that there was some modicum of fairness because usually there are two teams clear of the pack.

bedard-playoffs-marshawn-lynch-800
 

Expanding the playoffs by just one team in each conference would mean only one team gets a bye, and that would just be wrong. I don’t care what the statistics say about how teams with byes fare in the postseason. Having to play one fewer game than everyone else and then getting two home games is too much of a competitive advantage, especially when you consider the disparity in schedules.

Take this past season. If a seven-team system had been in place, the Broncos (13-3) would have received the only bye in the AFC. The Patriots, just one game back at 12-4, would have had to play three playoff games, despite playing a tougher schedule than Denver (18th-rankedby FootballOutsiders.com, compared to 31st for Denver) and beating the Broncos head-to-head. How is that even remotely fair? Why should one team dramatically increase its odds of reaching the Super Bowl simply because it had to the good fortune of having a better draw?

“The negative part of [playoff expansion] is if you expand there’s only going to be one team that gets a bye,” said Colts coach Chuck Pagano. “If you stay with the current system you have two teams that can earn a bye. Whatever they come up with, we’re going to face challenges along the way.”

In theory, having a bye as the carrot for the top teams keeps them more interested late in the season. I don’t buy into that. Making sure you have the best seed possible would be important in a non-bye structure because you never know when upsets happen. Given the home-field advantage some teams have thanks to crowd noise and the weather in January, it’s important to rise as high in the seedings as possible.

And in going to eight teams in each conference, not only are more teams in the playoff hunt for longer, but the importance of winning your division remains, since each division winner would receive at least one home game in the first round.

Yes, there are certainly some issues with the television schedule that would have to be worked out in any expansion, especially with 16 teams and eight games in the first round. But I’m sure some smart solutions can be found (who says two playoff games can’t be played simultaneously?).

The bottom line is, playoff expansion is coming to the NFL. It’s futile to protest against it, so it’s time to start thinking about how the new postseason will be shaped. Expanding by just two teams would stack the deck too much for one possibly undeserving team. Let fairness and excitement reign in the NFL. Open the postseason to 16 teams, eliminate the bye weeks and have a true tournament in which only the strongest team survives. Everyone loves the March Madness. Why? Because it’s unpredictable, frenzied and everyone travels the same road to the title. It’s time to bring that to the NFL.

mmqb-end-slug-square