Roger Goodell met with the media yesterday and one of the more interesting tidbits to come out of that session was the exploration of playoff expansion:
Right now, we are at 12 teams, obviously. We will look at probably 14 or 16. The committee will be looking at that.
Change always brings fear, especially in sports when it has championship implications. That being said, an argument can be made that the NFL has room to expand the playoffs, as long as they do it in a reasonable manner.
The best way to put this discussion in a proper context is to examine it in a historical context. The first modern playoffs took place following the 1967 season with four teams. Since that time, the playoff field has expanded on three occasions as the league changed in terms of number of teams and the number of regular season games. Here is a quick summary:
|Year||Total Teams||Playoff Teams||% Playoffs|
One of the arguments against playoff expansion will surely be based on the fear of diluting the playoff field. This is where the NFL needs to be careful.
An expansion to a 16-team field allows half the league to make the playoffs. Is the field watered down at that point? Perhaps; not to mention the scheduling issues that would arise in trying to squeeze a total of eight first round matchups into a single weekend (assuming the extra teams leads to the elimination of first round byes). Gone would be the ability to showcase one playoff game at a time to a national audience unless the league spreads the games from Thursday to Sunday or Monday. That introduces a short week/long week variable into the equation that the league should avoid.
A 14-team field initially seems awkward as the AFC and NFC would be split into seven-team brackets. Closer examination reveals there is actually a lot that makes sense.
A single first round bye leaves a lot of motivation for even the best teams to put their best effort forward through week 17, much to the delight of fantasy football mangers and ticket holders alike.
Would a 14-team field be a diluted playoff field? That’s a hard case to make following the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ 2005 season. They snuck into the playoffs as the six seed in the AFC and ended as Super Bowl XL champions. Even more, a 14-team playoff in a 32-team league is virtually the same ratio as the 12-team playoff started for a 28-team NFL in 1990 (see table above). Getting the playoffs back to a 1990 level (on a percentage basis) makes a ton of sense considering the parity in the league today. Remember, the free agency system as we know it didn’t go into effect until 1993!
With a single first round bye on the AFC half and another on the NFC half, the first weekend of playoff action fits nicely with an early afternoon-late afternoon-primetime schedule on Saturday and Sunday. That makes for two additional playoff games that can be broadcast to a national audience and that means more money.
When the NFL debates expanding the playoffs they will need to consider a number of factors including financial implications and ensuring that making the playoffs remains a special achievement. They league can balance those interests with a 14-team playoff structure, but 16 teams is going too far.