Playoff expansion better later than now
By John Clayton
Next week, NFL owners will assemble in Philadelphia to decide whether or not to expand the playoffs from 12 to 14 teams. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the competition committee aren't in favor of immediate expansion, but several owners are.
In March, neither side had thought the subject through enough. Stats and trends weren't thoroughly researched. Networks hadn't been contacted about the additional two games and possible additional revenue. Figuring out a time slot for the games would be a game in itself, although the solution would be simple. Just have Saturday-Sunday tripleheaders.
There is nothing wrong with "all football, all the time."
Over the past two months, I've come to the conclusion that a 14-team playoff format wouldn't work and would be unwise. In some ways, I've moved to the dark side. The fairest playoff expansion would be a 16-team playoff format, but that shouldn't be done for at least three more years.
Let's focus on why 14 playoff teams -- seven in each conference -- wouldn't work well. No matter how many ways it's argued, no matter how many stats are presented, no matter how many positives are created for adding more excitement late in the season for the cities anticipating a possible playoff game, one reality can't be eliminated: Giving a bye week to just one team in each conference defies competitive balance.
Under the current format, the two teams with the best records in the conference earn a bye week at the start of the playoffs. With 53-man rosters, bye weeks are vital. A team's injury list can drop from seven players to two during a bye week.
Heck, last year the bye week allowed the two NFC title-game participants -- Philadelphia and Tampa Bay -- to get their quarterbacks healthy for their first playoff game. Brad Johnson wouldn't have been ready if the Bucs, the NFC's second seed, had to play the first week of the playoffs.
The argument being pushed by those against expanding the playoff field to 14 is this: Why punish the second seed? Advocates of expansion argue that the bye week is earned during the regular season, but that is a hollow position if only one team can earn the bye week.
Schedule is everything in the NFL, and an easy schedule can skew the playoff rankings. For the past five years, the Super Bowl championship has gone to teams that have had relatively easy schedules. The road to the Super Bowl is pretty simple. The champs haven't needed winning records against teams with winning records. The key is just not playing a lot of them during the regular season.
Giving two byes in the first round of the playoffs is fairer than one in that instance. Two byes will prevent the anointing of just one team that navigated an easy schedule to grab the top seed and becomes the odds-on favorite to go to the Super Bowl.
Often, the second seed is a better team than the top seed. Since 1992, top seeds lost first-round games five times. Second seeds failed to make the championship game only four times.
It should also be noted that top seeds aren't necessarily clear cut. Tiebreakers are involved sometimes. Should the team with the second-best record in a conference be forced to play one more playoff game than the top seed because it happened to have a worse record against common opponents?
Please -- that's an insult.
The competition committee will go into next week's meetings with plenty of stats. They'll present stats illustrating that the average NFC top seed has 12 wins compared to 11 for the second seed. They'll present stats that the typical AFC top seed has less than 12 wins, with the second seed only a fraction behind.
This isn't like baseball, basketball or hockey where the team with the best record may be five or 10 games better than the next best team. There are only 16 games in the NFL. Since 1992, only seven top seeds have been two games better than the next best. Five times the top seeds have had the same record as the second seeds.
Three levels of expansion from 1995 to 2002 toyed with the schedules, giving good teams in divisions with expansion teams an easier road. In the first couple of years of expansion, the division winner often counted on whipping the expansion team twice. That one extra win might have been the difference between a third seed and a top seed.
Going to a 14-team playoff format would allow the top seed to take advantage of that slightly easier schedule, to get a vital bye week and to put that team two home wins away from the Super Bowl. That's really unfair. A bye week and two home games for the top seed only? That's too much reward for navigating through an easy schedule and not necessarily having a winning record against winning teams.
Going to 14 teams would put the league where it was from 1981 to 1991, when 16 top seeds advanced to the Super Bowl in 11 years. The beauty of the NFL is its love for broad competition, allowing more and more teams to enjoy the thrill of seeing potential playoff football.
Giving only one bye week to a conference top seed turns that hope shallow. Top seeds would go to the Super Bowl roughly 80 percent of the time. TNT promotes the NBA playoffs by saying that "TNT knows drama." In a 14-team playoff, the NFL wouldn't have much drama in the divisional playoff and conference championship rounds.
Unfortunately, the only solution is to go to 16 playoff teams, giving half the league the playoff experience. I know that weakens the playoffs. More 8-8 and, heaven forbid, 7-9 teams might slip in. But the NBA and NHL get half of their teams in the playoffs, and while keeping the present playoff format is probably the best alternative in the NFL, it's inevitable that the NFL owners will add playoff teams at some point.
The argument needs to be redirected and completely thought out. That's why expanding to 16 teams in 2005 or later might be the final solution to the problem. You know that the NFL has to find a way to get a team in Los Angeles by the time it starts looking at a new television contract.
Getting an existing team to move to Los Angeles is iffy at best. Tagliabue might have to go against the best hopes of everyone and add a 33rd team if the Los Angeles market finally resolves its stadium problem.
That will take years -- and so should playoff expansion. Say goodbye to the idea of going to 14 teams and giving out only two byes. Start thinking about the long-term plan to go to 16 teams and have a three-week playoff tournament that is balanced and fair and truly allows the best two teams to go to the Super Bowl.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
From 12 to 14
Here's how the first round of the 2002 NFL playoffs would have looked with 14 teams instead of 12 (seeds in parentheses):
Oakland (1) -- bye
New England (7) at Tennessee (2)
Cleveland (6) at Pittsburgh (3)
Indianapolis (5) at NY Jets (4)
Philadelphia (1) -- bye
New Orleans (7) at Tampa Bay (2)
Atlanta (6) at Green Bay (3)
NY Giants (5) at San Francisco (4)
Playoff expansion better later than now
Playoff expansion unlikely to pass this year
By Len Pasquarelli
In advance of the NFL spring meeting that convenes next week, the league\'s influential competition committee has voted unanimously against expanding the number of playoff teams, a recommendation that figures to scuttle the initiative.
Owners will assemble in Philadelphia next Tuesday and Wednesday and, on an agenda steeped with financial issues that are of scant interest to fans, the debate and likely vote on a proposal to expand from 12 playoff teams to 14 is the marquee item. But owners rarely go against the recommendation of the eight-man competition committee and sentiment in that group was solidly against expansion.
It requires a vote of three-quarters of the league membership, or 24 of the 32 owners, to implement key rules changes. The issue of expanding the playoff pool was debated, but then tabled, at the annual league meetings at Phoenix two months ago.
Beyond the competition committee vote, it is believed commissioner Paul Tagliabue does not favor widening the playoffs.
\"When it came up (in March), a lot of us were surprised by the degree of interest in it, but now that seems to have subsided,\" said one competition committee member. \"The initial (ardor), now that people have had a chance to think about it, probably isn\'t there now.\"
Giants vice president John Mara, a member of the committee, told The New York Daily News he feels the proposal is \"doomed for this year.\"
There was a tacit agreement in 2002, when the NFL underwent a wholesale realignment and adopted a new scheduling program, that the league would study those changes for two seasons before considering an expansion of the playoff field.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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