Roger Goodell's NFL Playoff Expansion Proposal Is His Worst Idea Yet

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Roger Goodell's NFL Playoff Expansion Proposal Is His Worst Idea Yet
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Likely hoping to deflect attention from his old boss undoing his decisions and criticizing his approach, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told media the competition committee will look at expanding the playoffs from 12 to 14 or 16 teams, according to Jeff Darlington of NFL.com:

Apparently, Goodell felt the only way to put a bow on years of terrible "Bountygate" decision-making is to one-up himself. Unfortunately, expanding the playoffs to 16 teams would be the commissioner's worst idea yet.

 

The Eternal Problem of Fair

Nearly every year in nearly every league of nearly every sport, there's controversy about the fairness of the season, schedule and final standings.

Whether it's about too long or too short of a regular season, balanced or unbalanced scheduling or which or how many teams make the playoffs, somebody somewhere always has a gripe.

Ideally, the "strongest" teams would always have a chance to play for the title, and "weakest" teams never could ruin a contender's season. But picking who the "strong" and "weak" teams are is more art than science, and being fair is a balancing act between having clear, concise, consistent rules and making exceptions for extraordinary cases.

The NFL is not perfect, but it's close.

 

Just About Perfect

Since the 2002 re-alignment, the NFL has been a 32-team league divided evenly into two conferences of 16, and then into eight divisions of four. Granting a playoff berth to all eight division winners, plus two wild cards from each conference, puts the NFL at a near-perfect point of balance.

Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images
Thanks, David Carr and the 2002 Texans, for forcing the best realignment ever.

With every division playing a home-and-home double round robin, even the "worst" division winners are deserving. With the top two seeds in each conference getting a bye, teams that dominate the NFL for 17 weeks have a short, direct path to glory: win once and you're in the conference championship game; win twice and you're in the Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, the wild cards allow good teams to overcome adversity to earn a playoff berth. Once there, they can only reach the Super Bowl by beating all three of the best teams in the NFL on the road.

It's tough, but fair. Think back to the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers and 2010 Green Bay Packers—both teams that won a title from the bottom seed.

 

Half the League Makes the Playoffs?

If the NFL expands to 16 teams, it will make the regular season all but meaningless. Teams with losing records will get in by the handful, and strong divisions (like this year's NFC North) could even have last-place teams make the postseason!

Tom Lynn/Getty Images
Matthew Stafford and the Lions would still be mathematically alive with a 16-team playoff.

It will also eliminate the power-protecting bye weeks. No. 1 and No. 2 seeds have to win four playoff games in a row to win a title, meaning there will be a lot more 13-, 14-,15- and 16-win teams watching conference title games and Super Bowls from home.

Instead of 37.5 percent of teams making the postseason, half the league would have a spot at the table. Let's think about where teams would sit if the NFL had a 16-team playoff this season.

In the NFC, besides the four division winners, the Bears (8-5) and Seahawks (8-5) would be in. Tiebreakers would give nods to two of the three 7-6 teams: the Cowboys, Redskins and Vikings. In the AFC, the Colts (9-4), Bengals (7-6), Steelers (7-6) and Jets (6-7) would all be in as wild cards.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
The 4-9 Tennessee Titans: still in the hunt for a 16-team playoff berth.

On the NFC bubble, there's the third 7-6 team, and the 6-6-1 Rams a half-game behind. The Buccaneers (6-7) are one game out and the Saints (5-8) are still alive at two games back.

In the AFC, the 5-8 Bills, Browns, Chargers and Dolphins would all be one game out, and even the 4-9 Titans would be just two games out with three left to play.

And what if there were five left to play?

 

18-Game Seasons: The 16-Team Problem Squared

Don't forget, Goodell won't let the 18-game regular season die; he still thinks "there is gold in them thar hills."

Two more games providing more opportunities for critical injuries, more time for hot teams to cool off, more time for cold teams to catch fire and more chances the best teams will not make the playoffs.

Football will more closely resemble long-season sports like baseball and soccer, where the teams that dominate the beginning of the season almost certainly won't lift the trophy at year's end. Like those sports, teams may begin resting top starters against weaker teams and pulling them earlier in blowouts.

The result: worse football.

Consider the Chicago Bears: After a 7-1 start, injuries and age are catching up to them. Supposing the NFL had an 18-game season and 16-team playoff and the Bears' current form continues, they could slide from 7-1 all the way to 8-10 and still make the playoffs, limping in as a surefire first-round out. Why bother?

Meanwhile, suppose the 4-9 Titans caught fire. What if they reeled off four wins in the next five, made the playoffs at 8-10 and knocked off the 15-3 Texans or 14-4 Patriots in the first round? It would be dramatic, yes, but also dilute the regular season terribly.

We've already seen the Patriots go 16-0 and fail to win it all. What happens when a team goes 20-1 and doesn't even make the Super Bowl? Why bother?

 

Expansion: The Only Solution

The only way any of these schedule changes would make sense is if the NFL is planning to expand dramatically.

Adding a fifth team to every division would put 20 teams in each conference, and a 16-team playoff would mean only 40 percent of the league gets in (close to the present 37.5 percent).

Making the playoffs would again be an achievement, and the lengthened stretch run could mean a whole month of baseball-style "pennant races."

But then the league has another problem: What do you do with the weakest teams in a dramatically diluted talent pool, playing from December to February with absolutely no hope for anything interesting?

Who goes to see a 2-15 team play a 5-12 team in late January with nothing at stake?

 

Conclusion: 16-Team Playoff is a Bad Idea

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There's just no getting around it: a 16-team playoff is a bad idea. The only way to fix its shortcomings would be to dramatically re-work the rest of the league and regular season, which is also a bad idea.

Commissioner Goodell really, really really wants to fix the NFL. But unfortunately for him, it ain't broke.

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