Should The NFL Expand The Playoffs?

Patrick McDermott

Roger Goodell is talking about expanding the number of teams in the playoffs. In the age of NFL parity, mediocrity becomes a virtue.

Although we may not act like it here at BTB, there is an NFL outside the Dallas Cowboys. It has been an extraordinarily intense week for us, and I thought I would bring up something that would directly impact the Cowboys, but that is not something to either make you weep or give you ulcers for a change.

The league held a Special League Meeting in Dallas this week, and, along with expressing his displeasure with the decision by Paul Tagliabue to vacate the suspensions for the New Orleans Saints involved in the bounty scandal, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell talked about the possibility of expanding the NFL playoffs from the current 12 to 14 or even 16 teams.

"Right now we're with 12 teams obviously. We'll look at probably 14 or 16 teams," Goodell said.

This will be a topic for the March NFL meetings. Of course, my opinion on this (well, on almost anything, actually) doesn't mean a whole bunch, but I wish to say this:

This is a really stupid idea.

You may, of course, disagree, but I think this would be yet another step to exalt mediocrity in the NFL. It is a way to make sure that more 9-7 and, especially if they go to 16, some 8-8 teams get to play in the post season. Look at last year. Two 8-8 teams would have made the playoffs from both conferences. In 2007, the entire AFC South would have made the playoffs.

The argument can be made that it will prevent years like 2010, when two 10-6 teams missed out while the Seattle Seahawks got in at 7-9 because the NFC West was so bad that year. And there have been years the Cowboys would have squeaked in with a larger field. But I still don't want to see the pool expanded.

I have long thought that the NFL has a nearly ideal number of teams qualifying for the post-season. The Seahawks example above was a true aberration. The vast majority of the time, you are dealing with teams that have clearly shown a marked amount of success. Having two wild cards also meant that divisions with two very good teams in them could usually get both into the playoffs. While no system is perfect, I think the NFL did a very good job of finding a good number that rewards excellence without shutting out many deserving franchises.

But an expanded format is just going to bring in more teams that truly do not belong in the playoffs. It would make 9-7 almost a lock to play into January. Teams would not be playing to be among the best so much as just trying to be slightly better than average. A 16-team format especially could lead to a growing list of playoff teams with a final record of 8-9. A playoff season and a losing season should not be synonymous.

Of course, many fans will likely just be happy to see their favorite team in a playoff spot, even if it just means the team is slightly above average. Any team can get hot at just the right time and make a run. But I think it somewhat dilutes the value of the regular season. And it could lead to teams coasting a game or two earlier in the season since it would have to mean some spots would be locked up even earlier. I think the number of games played poorly or with a certain lack of effort would actually increase late in the year with a bigger playoff field.

The only way I would see an expansion of the playoffs would be in conjunction with a league expansion. If the NFL ever got to 40 teams, then a 16 team playoff would make sense. Whether it is doable is questionable, given that some current franchises are struggling, and there is an argument to be made that the talent pool is already a bit diluted with 32 rosters.

Of course, the final decision on this has nothing to do with the quality of competition or keeping a certain level of integrity in the game. It is solely and totally dependent on one thing: Revenue. Extra teams in the playoffs means more games on national TV. It also gets two or four more fan bases much more involved. More cash comes into the networks, who are undoubtedly all for the idea, and some of that money eventually finds its way into the pockets of the team owners. Given the previously stated issues with league expansion, there are only two ways of significantly increasing the NFL revenue stream at this point, playoff expansion and adding to the regular season schedule. The 18 game regular season was also addressed by Goodell, but it is getting significant resistance from the players. This year certainly provides some support for the idea that a longer schedule is just too much to expect from the players in terms of wear and tear on their bodies. The same logic doesn't hold for playoffs, it seems, even though they do represent more games for the added teams (and would likely reduce the number of teams with playoff byes, depending on how things are structured).

Goodell talked very favorably about this idea which means he thinks it has a fairly good chance of getting voted out of the competition committee and being accepted by the union. I think this is coming. I don't like it, but my preferences don't really matter much, do they?

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