NFL Playoff Expansion: Everyone Gets a Trophy!

Let’s make ’em about THIS big

Recently, there has been some talk in the NFL of expanding the postseason by adding two extra teams–and thus, two extra games–to the playoff schedule. There certainly some good that comes out of this potential change.

  1. The league would cut preseason games from 4 to 3 for each team.
  2. The league would have two more games with clear “stakes” between “good” teams which would theoretically make for exciting viewing and increased TV ratings.
  3. Hopefully, the league will stop talking about expanding the regular season to 18 games (in other words, adding 32 individual games to the regular season).
  4. The league would probably make a lot more money from all of this.
  5. The league would decrease the chance of leaving 11- and 10-win teams out of the playoffs altogether. (I’ve discussed 11-win playoff misses before).

I can get behind at least the first three of the above. What do I care if the league makes more money? Of course, that’s probably the biggest motivator for expanding the postseason (and don’t give me any BS about giving HOPE to two more fan-bases).

Consider point #5 in regards to the 2013 season. With an expansion, in which I assume only the number one team in each conference would get a first round BYE, the 10-6 Cardinals (the only NFC team with a better record than than the playoff-bound Packers to miss the playoffs) would have made it in. In the AFC the six best records made it in, but the still-bitter 8-8 Steelers (“victims” of a surprisingly non-Jeff Triplette bad call) would have received the #7 seed.

This doesn’t fix everything of course. If the expanded playoff proposal was in effect in 2010, when the 7-9 Seahawks won their division (and beat the 11-5 Saints in the Wild Card round), the 10-6 New York Giants would still have missed out. In 2008, the 11-5 Patriots would have made it in, but the 9-7 Jets would have missed out while the 8-8 Chargers hosted a Wild Card game.

This raises the question of whether the NFL should consider a new way of seeding the playoffs to make sure division winners with aren’t hosting games for teams with better regular season records. Potential playoff re-seeding is something I’ll address in another post.

Back to the topic at hand, expanded playoffs seem like a winning proposal for all of the reasons stated above. However, there’s one thing that bothers me a little about this. As referenced in the title of this post, I’m worried about letting too many teams into the playoffs.

Sure, I’m probably protesting too much because it’s just one more team per conference. Still, that means 14 of the 32 teams in the league make the playoffs. That’s 43.8%, or, two teams (one more expansion) away from half the league. It seems a little excessive when every team has almost a 50/50 shot of making the playoffs.

Should I really be that concerned though? Let’s take a look at playoff history since the merger:

  • 2002-present: 12 of 32 teams make the postseason (37.5%)
  • 1999-2001: 12 of 31 teams (no Texans) make it (38.7%)
  • 1995-1998: 12 of 30 teams (no Browns) make it (40%)
  • 1990-1994: 12 of 28 teams (no Panthers or Jaguars) make it (42.9%)
  • 1978-1989*: 10 of 28 teams make it (35.7%)
  • 1976-1977: 8 of 28 teams make it (28.6%)
  • 1970-1975: 8 of 26 teams (no Seahawks or Buccaneers) make it (30.8%)

*The strike-shortened 1982 season featured a 16-team playoff, meaning 57.1% of teams qualified for the “postseason.”

Looking at that information, expanding the playoffs doesn’t seem that far out of line with playoff-team percentages of the recent past. It’s certainly not as big a change as adding two more playoff teams in 1990** was. However, it still allows a greater percentage of teams into the playoffs than ever before. The major concern with this is that the NFL is diminishing the importance of the regular season by adding two more teams.

**The 1990 season was also the first to run 17 weeks, increasing league revenue and introducing BYE weeks.

Was a playoff spot more meaningful in the 1970s when less than a third of the teams made the postseason? Maybe. In my opinion, having decreased the percentage of playoff teams gradually since 1994 the league has done reasonably well with the current system. So, shouldn’t it just be left alone?

The biggest reason to say “yes” is mentioned in the title of this post. A 14-team postseason would likely allow more 9-7 and 8-8 teams into the playoffs. “Everyone gets a trophy!” means “everyone with a plus-.500 record gets a playoff berth.” While this is technically only true in theory, is it really something we want to see in the NFL? Should being slightly above average in the regular season be enough? Does it make sense to let every team with a winning record in?

I would say no. Sure, finishing better than 8-8 is an accomplishment, but that shouldn’t be the bar to get you into the playoffs. 8-8 typically doesn’t instill confidence, or suggest a good/talented team (though they may be exciting, like Tebow’s Broncos or the 2013 Packers).

Continuing from there: Is 9-7 really that much better than 8-8? I suppose it is, if only mathematically, but we already get enough 9-7 teams in the playoffs anyway. Since moving to a 16-game season (1977), 74 teams with records of 9-7 or below have made the playoffs, roughly two 9-7 teams per year (not counting the strike-shortened 1982 and 1987 seasons). Two of those 9-7 teams lost the Super Bowl (1979 Rams, 2008 Cardinals) and another won (2011 Giants). A 14-team playoff will just allow more 9-7 teams in. Yes, it will help the odd 10- or 11-win team get in, perhaps as a consolation from the NFL for not changing the playoff seeding rules. But it will help the odd non-division-winning 8-8 team get in too. Expansion just sets the playoff bar that much lower.

While I’d say I’m currently in the “vote NO on expansion” camp right now, I’m not entirely against it. This is really the smallest possible change the league could make for expanding the playoffs. Plus, how can I argue against two extra football games?

Whether there are 12 or 14 playoff teams, we’re probably always going to have some controversy. Teams with winning records can still miss the playoffs and division winners with “bad” records can still make the playoffs. I don’t think the proposed expansion is meant to “fix” anything wrong with the current system, but rather to give fans more of a good thing (and, of course generate $$$ for the NFL). However, the question is: when does “giving the people what they want” start to diminish the overall quality of the product?

[all calculations based on season standings found on wikipedia.org]

[Sorry, no wiggle room in the poll below for those of you who think seeding is the main problem]

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