Different Ways the NFL Can Improve the Current Playoff System

Dan Van Wie@@DanVanWieContributor IIIJanuary 18, 2013

Different Ways the NFL Can Improve the Current Playoff System

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    How would you go about improving the current NFL playoffs? While some people like it exactly the way that it is, others would like to see changes that range from minor tinkering to some bigger changes.

    The playoffs have seen only a few changes in the last decade. The most recent notable change was altering the way that overtime would be played in the postseason.

    Prior changes made to the playoffs included adding Wild Card teams, as well as altering how many divisions existed in the AFC and NFC. For a historical overview of changes with the NFL playoffs, here is a timeline link from profootballhof.com.

    However the system has been tinkered with over the years, the bottom line is that the postseason is reserved to showcase whichever teams are playing the best football. Many great moments of NFL history are created in the playoffs, and that is why they continue to be so special. The drama that was witnessed in the divisional round this past weekend is a prime example of a special weekend of playoff football.

    In this presentation, we will start out with a few minor idea suggestions and then we will introduce a concept that would be more of a major change.

    As always, your feedback or comments regarding these ideas are encouraged and welcome.

Utilizing More Hi-Tech

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    There were several very long lags in the Baltimore Ravens vs. Denver Broncos game where the referees seemed to be clueless in what they were doing. It was bad enough that the fans had to sit there in temperatures that were below 10 degrees, but the players were in the same boat.

    It's one thing to run around to stay warm, but when you have to stand there for five minutes waiting for a decision from the replay booth, that is crazy.

    The first change we want to introduce has to do with making use of more hi-tech applications. If there are opportunities where new innovations in hi-tech could be used to improve the game, we are all in favor of that. If the end result is that it speeds up the game or helps referees to get the calls right, all the better.

    Specific hi-tech improvement suggestions

    1) Insert small sensor devices into the football that would allow for lasers from the sidelines to intersect with the ball. This would allow the referee to see if the ball had broken the goal line or broken the first down chain marker. There are other applications, as well. When the quarterback threw the football, was he over the line of scrimmage or not?

    You could have a replay official monitoring the hi-tech screens and could then buzz or announce to the referee instantly if the ball broke the line or not. It takes confusion out of the equation and eliminates human error since the lasers would be extremely accurate.

    Before you start dismissing this as lunacy, note that there is a push for the same thing in soccer. You can read about the new hi-tech soccer ball in more detail here.

    2) Using technology to identify where the football is when it is blocked from almost every camera angle.

    What is the best way to go about this? Good question. Put your CSI hat on and let your imagination run wild. It could be a new application with the cameras or applying some kind of chemical substance to the ball (blacklight or fluorescent) that would still show up when the player's body is blocking the ball on the replay.

    If this could be created, it would allow for faster replay booth decisions, as the replay officials could determine where the ball was when a player's knee hit the ground. You could see if the ball was still in a player's hand when he went out of bounds. There would be a number of practical applications here.

    3) Hi-Tech uprights. Enough playoff games are decided by a field goal, that you would hate to have the fate of a team decided due to a judgement call on whether the ball was inside the uprights or not.

    Some field-goal attempts soar well over the top of the uprights that make it hard to determine if the ball truly went through the uprights or not. So, if the ball goes directly over the top of the uprights, is the kick good or not?

    What if you could have a laser extending up from both uprights? If the ball goes through the extended lasers (via the replay booth), the kick could be ruled as either good or no good based on whatever the NFL Competition Committee feels is the fairest way to treat the play.

    Maybe the NFL isn't ready for all of the above now, but I wouldn't mind seeing a little more hi-tech in the games that makes life easier on everybody and keeps things moving along.

Allow Coaches to Challenge Penalty Calls

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    Several times in the divisional round it appeared that a drive was stopped by the defense, only to see a late penalty flag floating in with a questionable penalty call that extended the drive.

    You see the coaches going crazy on the sidelines (the Harbaugh brothers come to mind here), but they have no recourse other than to lash out at the referees and accept their verdict.

    The idea here is to provide a head coach with two "penalty flag challenges" per game.

    Think about the applications. Did the 12th man get on or off the field in time? Did the clock go down to :00 before the ball was hiked? Was that really a helmet to helmet hit or did it just look that way at normal speed? Was it really pass interference or was it an uncatchable pass? I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.

    There are enough questionable calls made that can really change the outcome of a game. For the amount of time that it would take to have up to four penalties challenged per game, it would be worth the wait to know that the right calls were made on the field. There is nothing worse than to have your season end due to a bad call.

Have Consistency from Regular Season to Postseason

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    One thing that seemed strange last weekend was to see Baltimore Ravens field goal kicker Justin Tucker run out on the field and try a field goal during a time out. Tucker was trying to get a better handle on how the wind had adjusted since earlier in the game. He also used the practice kick to see if he was able to nail the kick from that distance.

    If he missed the kick or was off to one side or the other, he was then prepared to make the necessary physical or mental adjustments when it would count for real.

    The thing that was odd is that you never see this happen during a regular season game. If it doesn't happen in the regular season, then it shouldn't be allowed in the postseason.

    Another questionable event was after the opposing team calls a timeout, what is the proper amount of time a kicker should get off a practice kick as if it was a continuation of a live snap and when it is so far past acceptable where a delay of game penalty be enforced?

    The referee wasn't supposed to allow that practice kick or the backup referee on the sideline could have prevented it, as well. They fell asleep on the job and allowed a team to have an advantage that they probably shouldn't have been allowed to have.

    The point is that there should be uniformity on the rules from the regular season to the postseason. This will remain a sore subject for Denver Broncos fans for some time.

Reconfiguring the NFL Playoff System

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    Okay, the minor improvements are done and now we move into an area that would be more of a major change to the playoff structure. Since this will involve some different phases, we will spell the steps out on each of the subsequent slides.

    The bottom line is a recommendation that the NFL should eliminate two preseason games from the schedule and add two more Wild Card playoff teams for each conference.

    Most preseason games around the league are treated like a joke. The starters play about one quarter, the stands are only half-full and the majority of playing time goes to guys that don't even make the final roster.

    The next few slides will spell out the reasons why this change would be beneficial for the NFL as a whole.

Eliminating Two Preseason Games

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    NFL owners have been trying to convince the NFLPA to add either one or two more regular season game(s) to make it a 17- or 18-game schedule. As beat up as some of the playoff teams were coming into the 2012 postseason, you can readily understand why the players have strong reservations. 

    So, the first step would be to trim two preseason games off the schedule. Every NFL owner would lose one preseason game from their annual receipts. The overall proposal will allow a number of teams to make up for that lost revenue (and then some) with a sold-out game that isn't on the current schedule. 

    The other important factor to note is that by cancelling two preseason games, there are now two extra weeks of the NFL season that we can implement where we feel they would be the best fit. 

    One of those extra weeks we will insert into training camp practices. This will give coaches one more week to work with players to get additional coaching and to evaluate personnel.

    The NFL can schedule the preseason games 10 days apart instead of one week apart if they prefer. The main thing is to provide teams with enough time to practice, implement their systems and conduct their positional battles to see who will emerge as the starters.

    By trimming four preseason games down to two, you are also improving the odds that you won't be losing a key player to a serious injury in a meaningless preseason game.

    The NFL could also opt to schedule the first exhibition game one week later than the league has traditionally started them.

No Tiebreakers for Playoffs, Play Your Way in

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    Remember we still have one extra week to work with. This slide will reveal how we intend to use that extra week.

    In the 2012 regular season that just ended, the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings were tied with a 10-6 record, but the Vikings were allowed to advance to the postseason, while the Bears were eliminated from the playoffs due to a tiebreaker.

    Under our proposal to change the playoffs, we would insert that extra week right after Week 17 of the regular season end.

    This new week would allow any teams that are tied in the standings (that are still in playoff contention) to meet in a game that would break the tie in the standings. You can refer to this as a "Play-In Game" if you prefer. The winner of the "Play-In Game" continues on to the playoffs, while the loser is officially done for the year.

    The location of where these "Play-In Games" would be played is open for debate. For the fans that enjoy employing tiebreakers, you could use them to determine which team gets to host these games.

    Looking back at the past five seasons, there was always at least one scenario that would have resulted in a "Play-In Game," rather than be sent home due to losing out on a tiebreaker. Teams that didn't qualify for the playoffs with a record of 11-5 would now have a chance to play their way in.

    Another creative way that you could use this extra week is to plug in the Pro Bowl game during this week. It would obviously be a modified Pro Bowl game, as this would be designed for all of the players from the teams that were already eliminated from the playoffs.

    With the lackluster performance of the 2012 Pro Bowl game, this might be a way to give the game a shot in the arm. This would allow the best players from the other non-playoff teams to have their moment in the sun.

    Another application of the "Play-In Game" week would be to settle ties in the standings to determine home-field advantage for the playoffs. An example in 2012 was that Baltimore and Cincinnati were tied in the AFC North division with records of 10-6. They play each other in the week of "Play-In Games" and the winner gets to play at home in the first round of the playoffs, while the loser would be a visitor in their first-round game.

    Another important factor is that for every team that isn't involved in a tie in the standings, they get a crucial bye week to rest up for the start of the playoffs. The vast majority of playoff teams would be getting a bye week at a crucial time of the year.

    Giving the majority of playoff teams a bye week to get over the bumps and bruises of a long regular season will only improve the quality of playoff rosters and the subsequent play of those games.

    Football fans would probably have a range of two to four games to watch that weekend. Worst case scenario is that if there were no ties whatsoever in the standings, then the focus would turn to the Pro Bowl game. This is also the week typically when the major college bowl games are played, so it isn't like football fans would be starved for a game.

Add Two More Wild Card Teams to Each Conference

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    Since the teams tied in the standings were broken thanks to the "Play-In Games," we now proceed to the first round of the playoffs. The proposed change is to include eight teams from each conference that qualify for the postseason.You have your four division winners, and then the next best four teams in the standings qualify for the Wild Card slots.

    The seeding would be No. 1 vs. No. 8, No. 2 vs. No. 7, No. 3 vs. No. 6 and No. 4 vs. No. 5. All eight teams would be playing in that first round of the playoffs. Most of these teams will be coming off of a bye week.

    Whoever winds up winning the Super Bowl will now be required to win a minimum of four games, not three. It is conceivable that a winner from the "Play-In Game" week would have to play five games. 

    Another distinct change we would like to implement is to re-seed the four winning teams. This twist to the playoff format would penalize a division winner with a 7-9 record and reward the team that went 12-4, but didn't happen to win their division. Looking at the four winning teams, whichever two teams had the best records, they get to host the divisional round playoff games.

    If there is a tie between two teams in the standings, then you still apply tiebreakers. But we like this twist because it rewards teams for having a better record in the regular season. In addition, this provides NFL owners with another opportunity to make up for that lost preseason game from their coffers.

    Based on the 2012 final standings (with our suggested format), Chicago, New York Giants and Pittsburgh would have all wound up as the extra Wild Card teams in the postseason. Miami would have played against San Diego in the "Play-In Game" to determine the final AFC Wild Card team.

Everything Else Stays the Same

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    Once the divisional round is completed, the winners advance to the conference championship games. leading up to the Super Bowl.

    The league can still keep the bye week between the conference championships and the Super Bowl to allow the media to get ample time to set the stage for the Super Bowl game.

    So, here is a condensed version of our proposed playoff change(s):

    Eliminate two preseason games from the schedule. 

    Add one extra week to the preseason for additional coaching and player evaluation.

    Add the second week right after Week 17, which is when teams tied in the standings would have a "Play-In Game." Ties that would determine division winners for home-field advantage would also be played during this week. For players from the non-playoff teams, this could be the week they play the Pro Bowl game.

    There are eight playoff teams from each conference, the four division winners and four Wild Card teams.

    For the NFL owners that are losing out on that one extra home preseason game, they have the opportunity to have a sold-out stadium for the "Play-In Game" week. In addition, teams with a better regular season record have the chance to host a playoff game, after the playoff teams are re-seeded after the first round of playoff games.

    The Super Bowl winner would now have to win a minimum of four playoff games.

    For the teams that didn't have that extra game to play at home, they have the opportunity the following year. For the top seeds, they play one extra home game rather that have a required bye week.

    Eventually the majority of NFL owners would make up their lost revenue with this proposal, except for the teams that continually finish in the bottom half of their conferences year after year.

    We trust that this proposal would meet with approval from the NFLPA, as well. The rationale is that the players would be fresher and healthier during the most important time of the year and they are playing two fewer preseason games every year.

    So, there you have it. Thanks for checking this presentation out. What do you think of our ideas, or better yet, what ideas do you have to improve the postseason?