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Some Clarification is in Order: Would Expanding the Playoffs Hurt Quality?

Jonathan Ferrey

A few months ago NFL commissioner Roger Goodell began talking about expanding the playoffs by four teams. That would effectively eliminate the first round bye that two teams enjoy per conference, essentially two more wild card spots. This was met by mixed reactions and a number of non-scientific polls showed the biggest reason, by far, fans were against this was because they felt the playoffs would feel watered down.

A note real fast, my study can only go back to the 2002 season because of the expansion of the league and playoffs that took place that year, going back before 2001 would be a bad move since it would be looking at a different league with different divisions and fewer teams.

Well I wanted to wait till this years playoffs ended so I could add that data to my study and now that the off-season has begun I wanted to delve into this idea that adding two more teams per conference would damage the quality of play in the playoffs. Before we do that though I wanted to make a quick point about the first round bye and it's advocates, while many players and fans think the bye helps since they get a week of rest, since 2002 only 5 of the 22 teams with a first round bye have won the Super Bowl and only twice in the past five years. The first round bye is largely overrated and for a variety of reasons (which I won't get into) seems to hurt more than help.

Back to the topic on hand, quality and the playoffs. This will be the first of a series looking at team strength and what a team's record means.

Does Expanding Really Hurt?

So to begin this study I went back and looked at the records of teams that would be those final four teams into the playoffs, by doing this we are able to look at whether bad teams would be getting into the playoffs. Obviously teams that have a losing record are seen as bad teams (though the 2010 7-9 Seattle Seahawks would disagree but we'll talk about them later) so let's focus on them first:

- Teams that would get into the playoffs with sub-.500 records: 3 teams or 6.8% of all teams to be added since 2002

Overall since the beginning of my study only three teams with losing records would have made the playoffs, hardly a large percentage so we can put that concern to bed. Let's look at the average records for each new seeding. So this would be wild card 3 and 4 for each division.

Year WC #3 WC #4
WC #3 WC #4
Average 0.586 0.523 0.549 0.517 0.544

Now a quick reference point, a 9-7 team has a true record of .563 and an 8-8 team obviously is .500. So the AFC would field, on average, a team slightly better than 9-7 for it's #3 wild card spot and a team slight better than 8-8 for it's wild card #4 team. The NFC is a bit worse off but their lower seeds tend to actually go further than lower seeds in the AFC. So if we were looking at the 2012 season, in the AFC the San Diego Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers would be into the players, both decent teams, the Chargers were competitive or beat a number of good teams and the Steelers beat the Redskins, Bengals, Giants and Ravens. Overall I doubt anyone would say they'd be weak teams. Throw in the fact that the Broncos would be playing the Chargers and the Patriots would be playing the Steelers, I'd consider those to be exciting games. In the NFC you have even better teams getting into the playoffs, the Bears (10-6) and the Giants (9-7) and I think we can honestly say those two teams have enough talent to easily win a playoff game.

I can already hear some of you saying "Who cares, everyone knows lower seeds struggle in the playoffs and would just be wasting time." I won't get into the fact that I don't care who is playing, more playoff football is never a bad thing. Second if, and we'll discuss that "if" later, these new teams do water down the skill and talent level of the playoffs, it shouldn't matter if they play, the #1 and #2 seeds should just role over them and not alter the playoffs one bit.

Let's now address the basic concept behind the idea that lower seeds don't accomplish much by studying the history of the Super Bowl. As before we'll go back to the beginning of the current playoff format in 2002 and I'll list the winner and loser of each Super Bowl and what seed they were, along with averages.

Year Winner Seed Record Loser Seed Record
2012 Bal 4 0.625 SF 2 0.719
2011 NYG 4 0.563 NE 1 0.813
2010 GB 6 0.625 Pitt 2 0.750
2009 NO 1 0.813 Indy 1 0.875
2008 Pitt 2 0.750 Ari 4 0.563
2007 NYG 5 0.625 NE 1 1.000
2006 Indy 3 0.750 Chi 1 0.813
2005 Pitt 6 0.688 Sea 1 0.813
2004 NE 1 0.875 Phi 1 0.813
2003 NE 1 0.875 Car 3 0.688
2002 TB 2 0.750 Oak 1 0.688
Average 3.2 0.722 1.6 0.776

After looking at this the higher seed is actually more likely to lose the Super Bowl, which may surprise a few people, but shouldn't, the recent history is littered with lower ranked teams making runs deep into the playoffs. This trend has actually been growing in recent years with the likes of the Packers, Steelers, Ravens and Giants twice. Over the past five years the average Super Bowl winner is actually lower, the 3.4 seed, and the loser is also lower at an even 2 seed.

So while the likelihood of the #7 and #8 seeds making and winning the Super Bowl is low, it has been done. Another factor to take into account is the underdog and black horse teams. This would be the 2010 Seahawks, who came into the playoffs with a 7-9 record and got ripped by fans and the media than beat the HEAVY favorite 11-5 New Orleans Saints. The same goes for the Jets 2009 and 2010 repeat conference championship games from the #5 and #6 seeds respectively. On average the #5 and #6 teams actually win about 1 game per conference per year, hardly to be overlooked.

Coaching and Stability

This is a side topic but one that is very important. After discussing this topic with a few coaches around the NFL, one topic actually stood out that fans didn't bring up at all, with more teams getting into the playoffs fewer coaches would get fired and therefore more teams would have greater stability year in and year out, and that is a very good thing. Teams that stick with their coaches long tend to win more games and go further into the playoffs than teams that are in flux consistently. Take the Bears for example this season, had the playoffs been expanded Lovie Smith likely wouldn't have been fired and the current talk of mutiny against their new head coach likely wouldn't be going on, fewer players would leave or retire and I can pretty much make the bet that the 2013 Bears would have been better with Lovie than without.

This level of stability helps coaches, teams and players develop LONG term and would actually begin to alter the NFL mentality of Not For Long, and this isn't just coming from me, this is from coaches and front office personnel, you expand the playoffs you greatly alter the instant gratification that some fans and owners have about the NFL.


Now would a few bad teams get into the playoffs, yes that is true, but keep in mind it wouldn't be anywhere near the level of watering down the NBA or MLB has where a number of sub-.500 teams get in each year, in the NFL it's a rarity. In the end a few things would happen:

+ More income for the NFL and players
+ More games for fans
+ More excitement when #1 and #2 seeds lose to these new wild card teams
+ Increased betting
+ A larger chance of an underdog making a run
+ Your favorite team might get into the playoffs more often
- Great coaching stability
- Increased chance of injury
- About one losing team every four years would get in
- Your favorite team might lose earlier

There are a few downsides, but I think there is more than enough good to make up for the bad, and I will say for a fact, adding two new teams per conference WOULD NOT water down the playoffs.