NFL debating how many playoff teams it wants
Monday, March 24
By John Clayton
PHOENIX -- Odds are against the NFL adding two playoff teams this season, but Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, long a sports visionary who annually presents the most rule change proposals, has an even more revolutionary thought.
How about 16 playoff teams instead of 12? That's ultimately Hunt's goal. Unfortunately, it's not the NFL's.
"From a competitive standpoint, I can make a very strong case that the bye week is unfair,'' Hunt said. "By and large, from the physical nature of this sport, the bye week is contrary to the idea that we try to sell that all teams have a fair chance. I will tell you in advance that I would favor having 16 teams in the playoffs so nobody has a bye. It's a tremendous advantage having a bye.''
Under the current 12-team playoff format -- six in each conference -- the top two teams in each conference are rewarded in a bye week. Hunt has proposed adding a wild-card team in each conference, a proposal that could come to a vote Tuesday. Going from 12 to 14 will be hard enough, but Hunt said he believes it could eventually lead to going to 16 playoffs teams.
That isn't a position shared by commissioner Paul Tagliabue or a lot of owners in the NFL.
"I think many clubs believe that adding two playoff teams and having one bye per conference would take a competitive disadvantage in the wrong direction,'' Tagliabue said. "I think it exacerbates the problem.''
The NFL realigned its 32 teams last year, breaking the league into eight divisions of four teams each. A rotating schedule was created that would have a dozen common opponents among division teams.
But when the NFL voted to realign the divisions, the Competition Committee and the commissioner suggested that no additional playoff teams would be added for at least two years. Giving the new schedule two years to work out any bugs would -- in the hopes of the league -- not cheapen the playoff product.
Bucs general manager Rich McKay, co-chairman of the committee, said the first season of the new schedule worked flawlessly and would be willing to listen to discussion about playoff expansion. His preference, though, would be to stay at 12 for now.
Hunt disagrees. The Patriots and Cowboys are joining him on this vote. Of course, Hunt has always been a maverick when it comes to staying status quo. Hunt pushed 24 years for the NFL to install the two-point conversion. "I was zero-for-23 in that one until the end,'' Hunt said.
Though Hunt has a problem with the bye weeks created by having 14 playoff teams, he believes it is the only way to eventually getting to 16 playoff teams.
That it means that half the league would be in the playoffs doesn't bother him.
"Sometime, some day I think it will happen,'' Hunt said. "I think it will happen just like it happened in NCAA basketball when they expanded to 65 teams. It happened in World Cup soccer. They used to have a 24-team field. Now it's 32. Baseball expanded its playoffs.''
What infuriates Hunt is that the best four teams in the league don't play during the first week of the playoffs. They are given a bye.
"I don't why you would have a playoff and you would have your best teams not play,'' Hunt said. "I don't know of any business that would put its best four products in the freezer for a week.''
Historically, the bye week has been valuable to teams that make the playoffs. Last year, the Bucs were given an extra week to have Brad Johnson, their quarterback, recover from an injury. The Eagles used their bye week to give quarterback Donovan McNabb an extra week to recover from a broken leg.
The Bucs and Eagles eventually met in the NFC title game.
In a 14-team playoff, Tagliabue and others said they believe that the top seed in each conference would have a completely unfair advantage with their bye week. The second seed would play the seventh seed during the first week. The only teams that wouldn't need three games to go to the Super Bowl would be the top seeds.
"I think historically that we proved last season that the NFL generates great interest late in the season because of teams trying to make the playoffs,'' Tagliabue said. "In the last week, we had 19 teams in competition for the Super Bowl. It will be hard to top that.''
Hunt figures to lose out on his push for two more playoff teams, but he will continue to push for change.
"This will outlast me, but some day I would like to see the NFL not end a game on a kneel down,'' Hunt said. "That's always bothered me.''
In other votes, the NFL is mixed on whether it will change the overtime rules. The Chiefs are pushing for each team to have a possession in overtime. There may be more than eight owners who believe that an overtime rule change will result in more ties.
Tagliabue said the NFL isn't expected to adjust its replay rules. The Browns are promoting a change that would give coaches extra challenges if their replay challenges were correct.
Though there will be no decision at the owners meetings this week involving the Lions for not interviewing minority head coach candidates, the only penalty would involve fines. League by-laws prohibit a draft choice penalty for items that don't involve competitive violations.
The NFL will extend its system of using league funds as loans in future stadium deals. The successful "G-3'' program has helped numerous stadium projects around the league.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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