Oh no! The Seattle Seahawks, a 7-9 team, have made the NFL playoffs! And they're going to host a playoff game! Obviously, the entire integrity of the NFL has been compromised, and no one will ever, ever watch another NFL game.
Not only that, but clearly the Seahawks are responsible for earthquakes in South America, homeless veterans and that filmy stuff that comes out when you try to squirt mustard on your hot dog.
Sarah Palin should be tweeting about it any time now.
OK, maybe that's a little hyperbolic. But there has been much consternation about the Seahawks' playoff berth and how the system needs to be changed to make sure nothing like this happens again.
No less a luminary than Nate Silver, the political guru behind FiveThirtyEight and former baseball analyst, has been raising the question whether an 8-8 division champion should get bumped out of the playoffs in favor of a non-divisional winner with at least a two-game better record.
Overreactions like Silver's to the Seahawks' playoff berth were predictable, of course. And on the surface, the desire to see a problem needing to be fixed is understandable. How can a 7-9 team make the playoffs while a 10-6 team like the Giants stay home? Aren't we in the business of finding the best team?
And that's the false premise that underlies most of the calls for a change in the system to solve the "Seahawk Situation."
Because the NFL, like just about every sports league in the United States, isn't designed to find the best team. It's designed to find a champion, and there's a difference.
The NFL, as we all know, is broken down into two conference, with four divisions each. Why? If the intent is just to find the best team, why would such artificial structures be imposed?
Simple. It makes things more exciting. The idea behind creating conferences and divisions is to create drama and excitement in the regular season. All the different divisional races mean there's more to compete for and more teams having more to compete for. That means more exciting games and more fan interest.
It worked on Sunday. A game between the 7-8 Rams and the 6-9 Seahawks got moved to prime time for the entire nation to see. Why? It sure wasn't because those were the two best teams. It's because the artificial structure of conferences and divisions did its job and created an exciting game where there would otherwise be none.
The same holds true for the playoffs, maybe even more so. The NFL playoffs are a one-and-done event, where even a great team can have one bad game, or one bad play, and get eliminated. Exhibit A of this premise might be the 2007 New England Patriots, who were 16-0 in the regular season and 18-0 coming into Super Bowl XLII. Of course, they lost to the New York Giants, thanks in part to a circus catch by David Tyree.
Were the '07 Giants a better team than the '07 Patriots? Given all the evidence over the course of the season, one would say no. But we don't really care who was the better team. We care who won one of the most exciting Super Bowls in history. And it's the Giants, not the Patriots, who get the glory from that season.
If the intent was really to determine who the "best team" was, we would do away with the playoffs. We would just extend the regular season to make sure we could, as best as possible, have a balanced schedule where each team played each of the other teams.
Then, all the teams could have comparable records (which we can't do now with the NFL's unbalanced schedules—one 10-6 is not equivalent to another), and the team with the best record would win.
That approach is not without precedent. Soccer in England and throughout most of the world crowns their champions that way. The English Premier League doesn't have a title game. Each team plays every other team in the league, home and away, and the team with the best record at the end of the season wins the championship. It can mean that the title is won with two or three games left in the season.
Is that a fairer way of deciding the "best team" in the league? Probably. It avoids the one-and-done issue that knocked out the '07 Patriots and gives you a broader data set to make a "best team" determination.
But it wouldn't be nearly as exciting. Playoffs, like conferences and divisions, are artificial creations designed to increase excitement in a sports. And I suspect even Mr. Silver would concede that the playoff structure is superior in terms of creating excitement and entertainment to the soccer model.
In fact, if you wanted to take the analysis to its ridiculous conclusion, you could argue that the score itself is an artificial construct. How many times have you seen one team outplay the other team, but due to a particularly freakish set of circumstances, the other team wins? Not often, but it does happen. If you were really serious about finding the "best team", you would ignore the score and just see which team had the better statistics.
Obviously, that wouldn't be much fun. But it drives home the point that, many times, the idea in sports is not to slavishly generate a system that identifies the best team. The idea is to create an exciting event. Most times, the better team is one that will outperform the lesser team, and end up victorious either on the scoreboard or in the standings.
There is a reason why the sports cliche "may the best team win" exists. The cliche implicitly understands that sports is about deciding a champion, either for the particular game or over the course of a season. One hopes, and usually that hope is borne out, that the better team is the one that wins. But it doesn't always happen, which brings into play another sports cliche: "That's why they play the games."
So, let's bring the discussion back to the Seahawks. The system worked perfectly in this case, to generate excitement and interest where none would otherwise exist. If Silver's rule was in place, both the Rams and the Seahawks would have ended the season at 7-9, and neither would have made the playoffs. The game would have been meaningless.
The NFL should be in the business of making games more meaningful, not less. So we should celebrate, not denigrate, the system that gave us the 7-9 champion Seahawks.
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