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The NFL Playoffs: Year-To-Year Randomness Posing As Parity

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The NFL Playoffs: Year-To-Year Randomness Posing As Parity
John Sommers II/Getty Images

The NFL playoffs are upon us and, once again, fans have been served a bracket that differs significantly from the one that came one year before.

None of the other three major sports leagues experience the playoff-team turnover that the NFL does year to year. While many fans like the randomness because their team usually has reasonable playoff hopes each year, the inconsistency masks the real rises and falls of teams and makes for a worse long-term fan experience.

This 2010 postseason returns six 2009 playoff teams (Chargers, Colts, and Ravens in the AFC; Vikings, Cardinals, and Eagles in the NFC). That’s 50 percent. The Patriots, Bengals and Jets made it this year in the AFC after not qualifying last year while the Saints, Cowboys and Packers are the NFC’s fresh faces.

According to Mike Florio of NBC Sports’ ProFootballTalk.com, half is the norm . But after looking back over the last decade or so, I found that half is actually higher than average.

Since the 2001 NFL playoffs (those that took place after the 2000 regular season), an average of 5.6 teams per postseason were in the playoffs the year prior. That amounts to a 46.9 percent turnover.

Three times—2001-2002, 2007-2008, 2009-2010—the turnover of playoff teams from one year to the next was six (50 percent). Three times—2005-2006, 2006-2007, 2008-2009—the turnover was five (41.7 percent). Once—2003-2004—the turnover of playoff teams was four (33 percent).

Twice since the 2001 NFL playoffs there have been turnovers over 50 percent. Seven teams repeated playoff appearances from 2002 to 2003 and from 2004 to 2005 (58.3 percent).

Pro football has also had plenty of one-year wonders—playoff teams that did not qualify the year before and do not the year after.

During the last nine NFL postseasons, there have been 27 one-year wonders out of a possible 84—32.1 percent. (There are only 84 possible teams because no playoffs exist after 2010 and none are being measured before 2002. Therefore, 2003-2009 are the only years of the study with possible one-year wonders.)

Major League Baseball comes close to the low NFL turnover. Since the 2001 MLB playoffs, the average year-to-year turnover of playoff teams is 50 percent. The league has also had 16 one-year wonders out of a possible 56 (28.6 percent).

Over the last nine NHL postseasons (which includes the 2000 postseason because there were no 2005 playoffs) 71.1 percent of playoff teams, on average, make an appearance the next year. During that period, there have been 12 one-year wonders out of a possible 112 (10.7 percent).

The NBA has the highest average playoff turnover since 2001. Over its last nine postseasons, 75 percent of one NBA season’s playoff teams qualify for the postseason the following year. In addition, there have only been eight one-year wonders in the NBA out of a possible 112 (7.1 percent).

The NFL prides itself on its parity—the equality of its teams is supposedly exemplified, in part, by the league’s low year-to-year playoff turnover. However, the NFL has as little parity as any other league and equality among teams has nothing to do with the pro football’s lack of postseason consistency.

While the NFL’s elite, year in and year out, may be a smaller group than that of the NBA, teams like the Colts, Patriots, and Steelers are, without a doubt, among an upper echelon (22 total playoff appearances and six Super Bowl victories from 2002-2010). The Lions, Browns, 49ers and Raiders have been among those that populate a lower echelon (five total playoff appearances from 2002-2010).

Yes, unlike those of other leagues, the teams of the NFL’s lower echelon do crack the bracket once in a while. (For example, Tim Couch’s Browns in 2003 and Jim Miller’s Bears in 2002). But that’s because a 16-game regular season is vulnerable to streaky play and over achievement.

The schedule occasionally leads to a perennial bottom-feeder making the playoffs. It always leads to a random finishing order among the mid-level teams (Packers, Cowboys, Broncos, Ravens, etc.). That is where much of the low turnover and one-year wonders come from.

The 82-game schedules of the NBA and NHL weed out the lower and lower-middle teams, leaving a more purified playoff lineup without the presence of streaky teams. (Or teams that make the playoffs due to their opponents resting starters. The NFL’s Jets got two of their nine wins this year, almost one-fourth, because the Colts and Bengals had no reason to compete in the last two weeks of the season.)

But what about baseball?

Major League Baseball has a 162-game schedule, but only a 50 percent playoff turnover. When adjusted, isn’t that much more random than the NFL?

At face value, it is. But the MLB playoffs take only eight out of 30 teams per season. That means that numerous winning teams are left out. The low turnover, for the most part, derives from smaller rises and falls among the records of good teams.

For example, the 2007 Yankees made the playoffs as a Wild Card with a 94-68 record. In 2008, they finished 89-73 but missed the playoffs. A 5.3 percent decay in the win column resulted in a long offseason for New York.

Similarly, the 2004 Twins won the AL Central in 2004 with 92 wins. Their win total declined 9.7 percent to 83 wins the next season. They finished in third place in the Central and missed the playoffs.

Year-to-year win percentages among NFL teams that make the playoffs before missing them the next year, or vice versa, improve and decline to a larger degree than baseball teams.

The Bengals made the 2010 playoffs with a 10-6 record after finishing out the playoffs with a 4-11-1 record last year. Conversely, the Titans made last year’s playoffs with a 13-3 record before missing this year’s with an 8-8 record. Cincinnati’s win total improved 150 percent while Tennessee’s fell 38.4 percent.

Are the Titans a middle team that got hot last season? Maybe they are a good team that went cold. Are the Bengals a bad team masquerading as an upper-middle one this season? Year to year, it’s very difficult to decipher a football team’s true identity.

Professional sports are great because, in every league, there are levels and echelons. The teams that populate each change over the years. During one decade, your team may be in the lower echelon. During the next, it may be in the upper after a couple of years in the middle. (And the middle has levels within itself, like the middle class of an economy.)

Do not be fooled when you glance at this year’s NFL playoff bracket. The 50 percent turnover from 2009 appears to justify the presence of parity. But because the low return is rooted in the league’s short schedule, the year-to-year changes only hide the league’s natural division and deprive many fans of consistently successful and consistently unsuccessful teams.

After all, witnessing the transformation of the latter to the former is the greatest part of being a sports fan.

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