I thought this was over with...guess I was wrong.
By Bryan McGovern, The Sports Network's NFL Editor
Goal Line Stand
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - NFL executives descended upon Philadelphia for the league’s annual spring meetings to discuss numerous matters, including the intriguing proposal brought forth by New England and Kansas City to expand the playoff field from 12 to 14 and number of postseason games from 11 to 13.
The competition committee tabled the proposal during the March meetings in Phoenix, but the idea has surprisingly gained support since then. The Patriots, who were one of five AFC teams to finish 9-7 last season, would have qualified for the postseason under the proposed guidelines. The 8-8 Chiefs still would have been on the outside looking in even if these rules were in place for the 2002 season, but the franchise’s pioneering spirit and recognition of league-wide parity make this idea more than a fad.
Still, change comes slow in the league where they play for pay. The NFL requires at least 24 of its 32 member clubs (75 percent) to vote in favor of a major change in order for it to pass. By comparison, owners fell seven votes shy (17-14 with Oakland abstaining) in March to change the overtime setup for the 2003 season.
The NFL’s realignment plan that was instituted prior to the start of last season was overdue. However, the league failed to update its postseason alignment. In fact, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said he was in favor of waiting a couple of years before visiting playoff expansion. That was before the ’02 season, and it’s not likely to expect Tags to change his tune so quickly. The Commish’s wait-and-see stance could affect the competition committee, which in turn would push the owners toward a more balanced vote.
Major League Baseball currently has the smallest playoff field of the four major sports. Eight of MLB’s 30 teams (26 percent) make the playoffs. The NFL has the second smallest postseason field with 12 of 32 clubs (37.5 percent) qualifying. Using the "cream rises to the top" philosophy, baseball has the longest regular-season schedule of the four majors (162 games), which allows clubs to jockey for playoff position over a longer period of time. Every game counts during the NFL’s 16-game schedule and there is little margin for error.
An NFL team can win six of its last eight games and still miss the playoffs because of a three-game skid to open the season. A major injury to a key player in a league that lacks roster depth because of a restrictive salary cap can wipe out a club’s Super Bowl dreams.
More than half of the teams in the 29-team NBA and 30-team NHL qualify for the postseason (16 in each sport). The NFL views its playoff tournament as an exclusive field reserved for teams with a legitimate chance to win the Super Bowl. However, that line of distinction is sometimes blurred because of a short schedule and the emergence of league-wide parity.
NFL owners rarely go against the competition committee’s vote, but if they listened more to their head coaches then their tune might change. Currently four division winners and two Wild Cards make the postseason from each conference. The New England-Kansas City proposal would increase the number of Wild Cards to three in each conference. The league’s greatest fear is that a sub-.500 team makes the playoffs.
In 2002, seven NFC teams finished over .500. New Orleans, which was considered one of the three best teams at one point during the year, was the only NFC team with a winning record that did not make the playoffs. The Saints won their first three games of the regular season, including a Week 1 overtime thriller against Tampa Bay. Jim Haslett’s club had a stellar 6-1 record after Week 7 and seemed destined for a big playoff run. However, the Saints lost six of their final nine games, including their last three to the likes of Minnesota, Cincinnati and Carolina.
One could certainly argue that after losing their last three games to the dregs of the league the Saints didn’t deserve to make the playoffs. On the flip side, it would have been fun to see the only team to beat the champion Buccaneers twice take its chances in the playoff tournament. That would have happened under the proposed playoff changes.
Also under the proposed changes the Super Bowl XXXVI champion Patriots would have had the chance to defend their title last season. New England also opened the season 3-0, but Bill Belichick’s team lost two of its last three games and lost the tiebreaker to the New York Jets when it came time to decide the AFC East winner. Denver and Miami also finished 9-7 and failed to make the playoffs.
The NFL finally realized the need to realign its divisional format because of the addition of Houston, the league’s 32nd team, and now it’s time to take the next step and accommodate parity.