Dan Pompei's Read Option: The Case for Expanding the NFL Playoffs

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistMay 29, 2014

Kirby Lee/USA Today

Over the past 44 years, the NFL playoff field has grown from four teams to eight to 10 to 12, and now more postseason expansion is as inevitable as more urban sprawl. 

It really does not matter if the NFLPA or a few old-guard owners oppose it; they can get in the way of more playoff games no more than bison herds could get in the way of railroad construction in the nineteenth century. The league has too much to gain from more playoff games, and it makes too much sense not to pursue them.

This is why:

• The playoffs would not be diluted by adding two teams in most seasons. The 2005 Steelers and the 2010 Packers won the Super Bowl as No. 6 seeds. Why couldn't a seventh seed?

It's a fallacy that a team's regular-season record is the primary determinant of how efficient and dynamic that team can play in January. Since 2002, only three No. 1 seeds out of 24 have won the Super Bowl.

The regular season and the postseason is too long of a period for any team to hold serve. Remember the 2007 Patriots? They may have been the best team the NFL ever fielded for 19 straight weeks. But they could not sustain their brilliance for one more week, the week in which they lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl.

The playoffs are about which team is best in the fifth quarter of the season, and that team is not always one that takes a direct route to its postseason destination. A team that went 8-0 over the first half of the season and 4-4 over the second half might be a sitting duck in the playoffs, whereas a .500 team that started the regular season slowly but came on strong in December could be a dangerous postseason opponent.

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"They talked about playoff expansion maybe 10 years ago, and it was shot down then, but I was all for it," said former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo. "There was a collective thinking by a lot of the people who had been around a long time in the league that you shouldn't change what the game has been. But this isn't reinvention; it's improvement.

"The big argument was you don't want an 8-8 or 7-9 playoff team. But it's not about the record; it's about the quality of the team."

Consider that during the 2010 postseason, the 7-9 NFC West champion Seahawks upended the 11-5 Saints. And in the 2008 playoffs, the 8-8 Chargers beat the 12-4 Colts.

Parity is such a force in the NFL that it probably has not been uncommon for some of the best teams to be left out of the playoffs. If playoff expansion had been in place last season, the very-worthy 10-6 Cardinals would have gotten in. The Steelers would have made it in the AFC—they finished 8-8 but won six of their final eight contests, including two victories against playoff teams in December. Either might have been a stronger January opponent than the 11-5 Bengals were.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Also consider this: If the playoff field had consisted of 14 teams for the last 11 years, none of the 22 added teams would have had a losing record, and only six of them would have been .500 teams.

"The level of competition in our league top to bottom is so great that you would not be diluting the playoffs," Rams general manager Les Snead said. "I would not be surprised if the worst seed won a championship sooner than you think."

• The regular season will be impacted in a positive way.

Another playoff spot in each conference would mean that more teams would be in contention late in the year, and there would be fewer meaningless Week 17 games. Slow starts and bad stretches wouldn't be as deleterious, either.

"Fans will be more excited late in the season," Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy said. "Far later in the season, more will be in limbo. Games will have more meaning for the people in the stands."

And remember this: Adding playoff games essentially is a compromise for adding regular-season games. And expanding the regular-season schedule to 18 games would have the opposite effect of expanding the postseason—it would diminish the regular season because more teams would be falling apart physically at the most critical time of the year.

• It's preferable to have one team in each conference get a playoff bye, rather than two.

Angelo believes a bye should be a special reward for the best team in the conference. Giving a bye to two teams in each conference takes away from what the best team accomplished and gives the second-seeded team an advantage over the rest of the field that really might not be fair.

• More playoff teams should lead to more stability in organizations.

This could be the hidden benefit of more playoff teams. With rare exceptions, coaches who make the playoffs don't get fired. Teams that miss the playoffs often are pressured to make changes, and those changes ultimately may not serve their franchises well.

In 2007, the Browns missed the playoffs with a 10-6 record. They failed to make the playoffs again the next year, and as a result general manager Phil Savage and head coach Romeo Crennel were fired. In the five subsequent years, the Browns have a 23-57 record and zero playoff appearances. Who knows what could have happened if Savage's regime had taken root?

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

"The most stable organizations eventually get it right as a rule," Snead said.

• It will make for a stronger game.

The NFL probably could play games every week of the year and continue to build fan interest. More playoff games means more inventory for television. That means more money for teams, which means salary-cap growth and more competition for free agents.

Ultimately, this is about the growth of the league—and the league is ready to grow.

NFL Confidential

• The Rams traded up in the second round to take Lamarcus Joyner, and it was apparently because they thought the Titans had their sights set on the defensive back. However, their suspicions may not have been accurate.

Other league sources say when the Titans found out about Shonn Greene's knee surgery shortly before the draft, they decided to lock in on a running back in the second round, because their only other proven, healthy runner was gadget man Dexter McCluster.

They had a few running backs they liked within range of their pick in the second round (No. 43 overall) and started making calls about a trade down in advance of their pick. In fact, they arranged a deal to move down with the Eagles before the Rams leapfrogged them to choose Joyner. The Eagles wanted to wait to make sure the player they wanted—wide receiver Jordan Matthews—was on the board before making the trade official.

When Matthews was there, the Titans moved down 12 spots and acquired an extra fourth-round choice. With the 22nd selection in the second round, they picked running back Bishop Sankey, who fits Ken Whisenhunt's offense well. The other part of the story is that the Titanslike the Rams and most other teamsviewed Joyner as a nickel corner, and they didn't need a nickel corner because they already have a good one in Coty Sensabaugh.

• Look for Bruce Irvin to get more sack opportunities for the Seahawks this season. As a rookie, the former first-round pick had eight sacks, but he had only two last year after losing close to 40 percent of his pass-rush opportunities after being moved to strong-side linebacker.

The 2013 acquisition of free agent Cliff Avril gave the Seahawks a glut of pass-rushers, and the team's coaching staff thought Irvin had the athleticism to drop and do different things. Now that Chris Clemons has been cut, there will be more chances for Irvin to do one of the things he does best: get to the quarterback. The plan is for Irvin still to compete at outside linebacker with Malcolm Smith and K.J. Wright, but that will only be on first and second downs. In nickel defenses, he's going to be a pass-rusher.

SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 09:  Bruce Irvin #51 of the Seattle Seahawks celebrates after sacking Ryan Lindley #14 of the Arizona Cardinals late in the fourth quarter at CenturyLink Field on December 9, 2012 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Kevin Casey/Getty
Kevin Casey/Getty Images

• The Packers took a chance on Oregon tight end Colt Lyerla after the draft, but they did not take that chance without quite a bit of due diligence. Before they signed the troubled tight end as an undrafted free agent, three Packers front-office men, including college scouting director Brian Gutekunst, interviewed Lyerla in person. Then, the team also spent time on the phone talking things through with Lyerla. Finally, when the Packers brought Lyrerla in for a rookie camp tryout, general manager Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy also spent some one-on-one time with him.

• It has been reported that Bears first-round pick Kyle Fuller scored an 11 on the Wonderlic, but front-office men say they have no issues with his intelligence. In fact, one of the reasons the Bears and others were drawn to Fuller is that he plays so instinctively. His ability to understand the offensive play, diagnose it and get to the ball is one of his strong suits.

In rookie camp and the early stages of OTAs, Fuller also appears to have easily picked up what Bears coaches were teaching him. What's more, one front-office man said Fuller scored better on other intelligence/psychological tests he was given by teams.

Scout Talk

Blake Bortles was the first quarterback taken in the 2014 NFL draft, as he was selected at No. 3 overall by the Jaguars. Johnny Manziel was second, being selected at No. 22 overall by the Browns. And Teddy Bridgewater went third, to the Vikings at No. 32.

But that does not mean that's the order in which those players are expected to succeed. Bleacher Report asked three talent evaluators—a high-ranking NFC executive, an NFC personnel man and an AFC scout—what their expectations are for the first-round quarterbacks given the situation each is in.

John Raoux/Associated Press

Blake Bortles

The consensus is that Bortles is in a beneficial situation for long-term development, and that could result in him having the best career of all the quarterbacks.

"They are doing it right there," said the exec. "They are building something and not asking him to win it all now. He has poise and escapability. He always has been able to win the adverse moments."

The scout said patience should work in Bortles' favor. "I like that they drafted two wide receivers who can be paired with him, and they can learn together while he sits," he said of Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson. "That's a nice situation for them, and he can have success in a year or two. They still need to improve the offensive line, though."

The scout also said Bortles' development should be helped by the philosophy of Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley, who likes to run the ball and play sound defense without demanding too much of a quarterback.

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

Johnny Manziel

All three of the talent evaluators questioned Manziel's ability to thrive in what has been a dysfunctional organization.

The scout said Manziel needs to sit and learn, but he might not have that luxury if fans and owner Jimmy Haslam pressure coach Mike Pettine to play him quickly. "He has a lot of different personalities working with him, and a lot of egos involved," the scout said. "I'm not sure if that's a good thing."

The looming suspension of wide receiver Josh Gordon could hurt Manziel's development as well.

"They have no receivers," the scout said. "The one thing at A&M is that he had a go-to guy in Mike Evans. When he was in trouble, he found 13 and hit him. Manziel has some magic to him, but they don't have enough around him to be successful."

The personnel man said he believes Manziel will not beat out Brian Hoyer given how Hoyer performed last year. He also said Manziel will have to change his style of play, and that might take time.

The exec questioned if Manziel can play in cold weather or on a sloppy field, given that he did not have many such opportunities to do so in college. And he also said his off-field behavior could impact how he develops.

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

Teddy Bridgewater

Each of the talent evaluators believes Bridgewater is best positioned to have quick success.

"He's on the fastest track," the personnel man said. "He appears to be ready to play. He has Adrian Peterson to hand off to, which means he will see a lot of man-to-man, single coverage. He has good targets to throw to in Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson and Cordarrelle Patterson, plus a talented tight end (Kyle Rudolph). He should get good coaching. I'm not sure about him down the line in terms of being able to carry a team on his own, especially after Adrian moves on."

The exec said he thought Bridgewater would benefit from using play action, as safeties and linebackers will cheat up to play the run and open up throwing lanes for Bridgewater.

Hot Reads

• When it was suggested that Johnny Manziel could benefit from a veteran mentor to show him how to be a pro, the idea was not for the mentor to be Rob Gronkowski.

• The bet here is that Jim Christman probably never knew he was getting into the PR business in order to fix ties and supply chewing gum and Chapstick.

• Judging by how Vince Wilfork smokes his ribs, the Patriots defensive tackle is sufficiently healed from his Achilles injury.

• One of the reasons Charlie Whitehurst of the Titans lasted eight years in the league as a backup quarterback is because he was perceived to have a strong arm. That might be changing now that a punter is wearing his No. 6.

• Bruce Allen was named Redskins team president. This may be Dan Snyder's way of saying all inquiries about the team nickname should be addressed to Allen.

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted.

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