Roger Goodell seems to be on the fast track towards earning the ire of nearly every core NFL fan this season. First we had talk of expanding the schedule to 18 games. Goodell follows that up with the double whammy of replacement referees and his historically poor handling of the Saints Bounty case. Next we hear that he supports placing a team in London as a part of a 34-team expansion.
Photo Credit Stephen Chernin / Associated Press
Now, at the NFL Owner’s meeting, Goodell has done it again: he’s proposed expanding the playoffs to include as many as 16 teams. This is not a minor change, and whatever the league decides to move forward with will speak to the priorities that Goodell and the owners have for the league in the future.
If the NFL goes with a 16-team playoff structure, it would most likely look like a Sweet Sixteen bracket (There is a small possibility that the league would try to fit in an additional round, but I can’t imagine that the NFLPA would agree to that sort of change). The biggest shift here would not be the addition of two teams for each conference; instead, it would be the loss of playoff byes for the top two seeds. All teams would have to play starting in the Wild-Card round. While there might be a bit of competition at the end of the season to try and angle towards playing the worst playoff teams, the top incentive for the NFL’s best teams would be eliminated.
The 14-team playoff structure is more of an adaptation of the current system. The playoff bye would likely remain in place for the top playoff seed while the remainder of teams would kick off in the Wild-Card round. Given that seventh-seed teams, particularly in the AFC, are historically of a decent quality this is more desirable than the 16-team option.
Below is a list of teams that would have made the playoffs were Goodell’s plan in effect in previous years (going back to the 2002 expansion year). I find this list to be quite convincing against the argument that a 16-team playoff system is the best format.
Altogether that makes 23 additional playoff teams with a winning record, 15 playoff teams at 8-8, and 2 teams at 7-9. The average seventh seed would have 9.05 wins while the average eighth seed would have just 8.35. While a few deserving teams would now be able to gain their spot in the playoffs by using the seventh seed, a vast number of average or worse teams would suddenly be in a position to make a run for the Super Bowl.
Overall, the NFL is currently among the stingier professional sports leagues; the 12-team format allows only 38% of teams to advance to the playoffs. This is in sharp contrast to the NBA and NHL which allow more than half of teams to advance (53%). The principal difference between these leagues is that the NBA and NHL have a multiple-game playoff series in each round which serves to weed out weaker teams. It is incredibly difficult for a below-average team to withstand a six or seven game series against a top echelon team. On the other hand the NFL has single-game playoff rounds which allow for a much wider range of possible outcomes. As witnessed in the 2010 NFC Wild Card Round, the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks were able to surprise the 11-5 New Orleans Saints and silence many of the critics that lambasted their inclusion in the playoffs.
One of the greatest traits of professional football is that, on any given Sunday, any team can win; however, this is exactly the reason why the NFL should be more selective in which teams are allowed to participate. If a team can sleepwalk its way through the regular season and still end up in the playoffs, it destroys the incentive for teams to provide a decent product to fans, particularly in the latter half of the season when a playoff bid would most likely be assured for all but a couple borderline teams.
No one cares if a team finishes first in the regular season (i.e. 2007 New England Patriots) – the only thing that matters is winning the Super Bowl. As such, it is incredibly important for the NFL to ensure that only quality teams have a chance to achieve that accomplishment.
What does the NFL have to gain from allowing .500 and below teams into the playoffs? Football is an extraordinarily lucrative business and it doesn’t get more lucrative than the NFL playoffs. The league stands to earn millions of dollars for every additional playoff game added. I would imagine that the Players Association is unlikely to oppose adding a couple teams since it would affect rather few teams each year as opposed to a league-wide expansion to an 18-week regular season. I see playoff expansion happening regardless of whether fans approve of the move or not. My hope is that Goodell realizes that marketing a substandard product in weak wild-card games can be just as damaging to his league as the loss of additional revenue.