With the Collective Bargaining Agreement hanging like a dark cloud over all avid professional football fans, I found myself wondering what the NFL could do to improve their product once this labor dispute is cleared up. It appears we'll likely see an 18 game schedule, which is a plus for us and the owners, but not so much for the players.
The one aspect of the make up of this league that, I think, cheapens the product on the field is number of divisions in each conference. Winning a division should mean something more than a home playoff game for a below average 7-9 or 8-8 football team and getting into the playoffs as the top ranked wild card team should have a little more value than a grueling four game road to the Lombardi Trophy.
The current make up also cheapens the waning weeks of the regular season as once divisions are locked up, wild card teams really have nothing to play for as being the five or six seed doesn't really matter much. But what is the NFL to do? Aside from leaving things as they are, the NFL could do one of two things to vastly improve the drama and meaning of games late in the season. Both options involve a return to a three division per conference make up.
The first option is to remove two franchises from the league and return to a 30 team league. If you ask me, the Jaguars/Panthers expansion of the mid 90's was a mistake, but that's just me. It doesn't really matter anyway because like the American government, the National Football League is fully vested into the "endless growth" ideology of prosperity. Any step back will be seen as weakness or failure, so in reality, the only option on the table is the second one, which I will lay out for you here.
This plan would not happen overnight, rather it would be an incremental or phased plan in which the first step would be to consolidate the league back into three division conferences. Obviously, this would make one division in each league six teams large. This would cause scheduling problems as the current set up makes for a mathematically perfect cycle. Mathematical perfection doesn't necessarily correlate to a better product nor does it mean more fair. This is how I would reorder the divisions:
The new make up will keep the old rivalries together, while also renewing some forgotten ones. More importantly, it gives the NFL a road map to adding four more NFL franchises sometime in unforeseeable future. Shortsighted minds will likely have problems with expansion talk right now, but economic times go through history in waves. Right now, the world is in the bottom of that wave, sooner or later it will rise back up to the top of the wave once again. The NFL should be forward thinking, not reactionary to the times. They have a product that grows even in the worst of times, so they should already be planning for growth in the best of times. I'll get into potential expansion sites later.
For now, moving to this set up instantly makes the final weeks of the season and the first round of the playoffs interesting again! Just for fun, even though the schedule and records couldn't possibly have been the same, let's see what the playoffs would have looked like with this league:
AFC BYE: NE & PIT
AFC Wild Card: IND@KC & NYJ@BAL
The important aspect is that the best wild card team received the reward of a home playoff game. Being a wild card shouldn't automatically exclude you from a home playoff game and Baltimore deserved a game a home for the season they had.
NFC BYE: ATL & CHI
AFC Wild Card: NYG@PHI & GB@NO
The big thing here is that the unworthy Seahawks' season ended, while the three win better New York Giants got a rightful place in the tournament. Only two teams destinies in both conferences were changed, and in this bloggers opinion, for the better.
Winning your division in this scenario still means a home playoff game, but the change brings back importance and drama to the Wild Card teams. A bad division winner, like say Kansas City, would still get to host a playoff game, but several bad division winners won't ensure a 10-6 team like the Giants are ousted from tournament play by a 7-9 division winner.
This change would also play well into the scheduling for an 18 game season. For the five division teams the formula will remain perfect some of the time with eight divisional games and match ups against one division from each conference. However, when a six team division crops up then each team will play five teams in the other division according to record. Whether that will work mathematically, I am not sure, but a computer will find a way to sort it out. The six team divisions will have ten divisional games each season, but then would have to play four teams from each division according to record.
It wouldn't be as mathematically perfect as it is now, but its workable - where eventually - all divisions will have six teams. Once that is the case, math will once again become easy for the NFL's schedule makers. Each team will then play ten divisional games, two conference teams based on records and an entire division from the opposing conference. Switch back to three divisions per conference will give the NFL a model that works both now and with future league expansion.
Now if that wasn't confusing enough for you, where in God's name would the NFL expand in the future? It really does feel like every team that needs an NFL team has one, maybe even a couple that don't. The easy pick, so long as the Chargers stay in San Diego, is Los Angeles. That is the one city that should have a team. After that the list gets muddled and stretched to the limit. The best I could do, with the help of mdierk, was San Antonio and Portland. After that? Beats the hell out of me! I guess you could throw Salt Lake City in there, or maybe somewhere in New Jersey. The NFL won't do Las Vegas, so count that out.
One idea that really makes me excited about football is an NFL team in an International city. London comes to mind and a few large Canadian cities. As much as our Canadian brethren love their CFL, I have no problem with the NFL poaching their territory. In fact, if the NFL expanded into Los Angeles and San Antonio, they could also even things out by expanding into two International cities.
Looking above, I can see the Los Angeles expansion team heading to the AFC West, while San Antonio gets dropped into the NFC Central. Meanwhile, London would get a spot in the NFC East and Toronto or Montreal would land in the AFC East. I thought about adding Tokyo into the mix as the Japanese seem to love American football, but the only division that made sense for was the AFC West and I'd rather not see my favorite team travel across the globe for a divisional game every year! Mexico City is also an idea, but Mexico is(has) collapsing(ed) into a violent narcostate. If they ever recover, then perhaps a Tokyo/Mexico City expansion could happen in the far distant future. Anything can happen.
So back to the central theme of this post. Having just three divisions in each conference vastly improves the sanctity and validity of division winners, justifying a home playoff game, while also adding drama and suspense to the Wild Card race. Hopefully, the NFL understands this or we may not have seen the last of mediocre division winners.
What do you think?