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Improving the NFL

Step 1: Don't reward 7-9 division winners.

by James Leroy Wilson
January 4, 2011

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Improving the NFL

A funny thing happened on the way to the BCS Championship Game.

College football got it right. At least compared to the NFL.

Division I-A football does not have a play-off system, although a formula involving polls and computers (whose methodologies are kept secret from the public) determine the two teams that will play for an unofficial championship.

But this formula did accomplish its goal this year, as it often does. The two best teams, Oregon and Auburn, are playing in the game.

Meanwhile, a 7-9 team, Seattle, is in the NFL play-offs. Two 10-6 teams, Tampa Bay and the New York Giants, were left out.

One reason is that the League is organized into two conferences, each with four four-team divisions. Each first-place team at the end of the regular season automatically advances to the play-offs, as well two wild-card teams in each conference. But the eight first-place finishers are not necessarily the eight best teams in the NFL. In fact, it's almost never the case. Furthermore, they are often not even among the besttwelve teams.

Worse, they get to host a play-off game, often against a wild-card team with a better record.

Critics of college football say that the champion should be decided "on the field."

But how can this be true in the NFL, if a 7-9 team gets to play for the championship, while five teams with better records are denied?

If each division winner gets to go to the play-offs, the incentives should change. Two years ago, Arizona clinched their division after going 8-5 with three games to play. They stumbled badly in the next two games before winning their last one to go 9-7. The two wild-card teams, Philadelphia and Atlanta, were 9-6-1 and 11-5, respectively.

What if the Arizona Cardinals were told they must have an equal or better record as the wild-card teams to be guaranteed a home play-off game? Arizona in 2008 may have played better in its last three games to at least try to pass Philadelphia's record. This year, the 11-5 Saints would be hosting the Seahawks, instead of vice versa.

Another option would be to deny a play-off appearance to any division winner that fails to have a winning record if there is a potential wild-card team in another division with a winning record. The possibility would create a greater sense of desperation for the leader of a weak division late in the season, and would intensify the wild-card race if it was known that a) a third wild-card spot would be available, and b) the best wild-card team would get to host a play-off game.

But the NFL could do even more to make the race interesting.

One idea is to go for a points system, such as in hockey or soccer. What I would suggest is:

  • Five points for a victory in regulation
  • Three points for a victory in overtime
  • One point for a loss in overtime
  • Zero points for a loss in regulation

This would effectively punish teams for allowing the game to go into overtime. Later in the season, as teams get more desperate for points to get into the play-offs, you would see greater incentive to go for the victory in regulation time.

Another idea, which I first heard from ESPN's Erik Kuselias, is to change the overtime rule from sudden-death (first team to score, wins) to first team to score six wins. This would normally give a chance to both teams to score, and if one team does score a touchdown on its first possession, the other team deserves to lose. The prospect of playing the longer overtime, which can wear out the players, would be a deterrent from even trying.

A points system would make the football strategy more interesting. Should a team kick a field goal to send the game into overtime (and automatically lose two points), or go for a touchdown and a victory? As the season goes on, these issues would get more interesting, and will make the NFL an even more interesting product than it already is. 

Comments (3)

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Ed Perkins from USA writes:
January 8, 2011
I agree with you. There might be a better way to set up the NFL playoffs. However, this year the 7-9 Seahawks have been an underdog lover's fascination and a hot stove league dream. That goes in spades now that they've beaten the Saints. Sometimes in sports unpredictability is better than perfection.

For NFL overtimes, adopting the college system would be best. First to score six wouldn't work as well because the coin flip loser might not have a chance with the ball.

Steve Scott from Concord, CA writes:
January 9, 2011
The only rule change would come after a Seahawks SB victory. The problem is that there are too many divisions, with only 6 games played within a division. The Raiders were the only team to sweep their division, yet finished 8-8. I don't like the points system, so maybe a rule that only a winning team can make it (9-7), or that division winner playoff position goes to the next best record in the wild card race.

I have an NFL overtime solution, too. Keep everything the same as it is now, except for one thing. Figure out a comfortable time figure for how long it would take for two scoring drives (one for each team), whether it's 8 minutes, or 10, or whatever. Let's say 10 minutes for the sake of argument. Sudden death doesn't start until 10 minutes into the first overtime period. If each team scored twice in that 10 minute period, then sudden death starts at 10 min. If one team scored and the other team was driving, that 10 minute mark would be a virtual end of game, just like the end of the 4th quarter is now. The 10 minute mark could be used as strategic, calling the last time-out at 5:02 to kick a field goal. If a field goal is missed, the other team takes over on downs and sudden death kicks in. Make sense? Can you figure any problems with this idea?

James Leroy Wilson writes:
January 15, 2011
My understanding is that the NFL's Competition Committee has been concerned about the toll that overtime takes on players, leading to greater injuries and the like. That means they want overtime as short as possible.

In truth, I don't think there should be overtime during the regular season. There are so many ways to score, that ending in a tie should be a fluke, and teams should be forced into a choice like kicking a PAT for the tie or going for two for the victory.

Your suggestion may work well for the play-offs.

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