The NFL is closing in on the first change to its playoff format since 1990 and the first change to the length of its regular season since 1978, according to a report from ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Wednesday. It’s long been clear that league owners want to increase the regular season to 17 games, but all prior proposals have received massive pushback from the players who put their bodies and brains on the line week after week. Yet Schefter reports there’s been a breakthrough: The CBA proposal for which owners are now pushing would ramp up the portion of league revenue that goes to players from 47 percent to 48.5 percent—a seemingly small figure until you realize that it equates to billions of dollars over the course of the CBA. The league would in turn expand its schedule to 17 games.
Along with that, the proposal would add an additional two teams to the NFL postseason, upping the number of playoff games from 11 to 13. The upshot of the move from 16 to 17 games is simple: There would be one more week of regular-season games, and one fewer week of preseason games. But how would the new postseason format impact the league? Let’s take a look at some pros and cons.
Pro: More Football!
Friends, I’ve watched the XFL the past two weekends. I’m an NFL writer who finally got the opportunity to go outside on the weekend after the Super Bowl … and instead hunkered down to watch Cardale Jones lead the DC Defenders past the New York Guardians. I’m not even sure I wanted to watch it. It just happened.
Did I ask for the NFL to give me an additional week of the regular season and two extra playoff games? No. Do I need them? Maybe.
Con: The Football Isn’t That Great
The no. 7 seed in the AFC last season would have been the Pittsburgh Steelers. In case you forgot about the 2019 Steelers, they finished their campaign by losing a must-win Week 17 game against a Ravens squad that was resting its best players. This after losing to the Jets a week prior and the Bills the week before that. Pittsburgh scored a combined 30 points in those three losses—10 in each game.
Steelers quarterback Devlin Hodges went 9-of-25 passing for 95 yards in the Ravens game, losing a fumble and failing to throw for a touchdown. He threw one touchdown and six interceptions over that three-game stretch. Did you really want another nationally televised Steelers game this season? I don’t even think Steelers fans did.
Since the NFL playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, there have been 58 no. 6 seeds in the postseason. Only six have advanced to their respective conference championship games, including this year’s Titans. Only two have made the Super Bowl: the 2005 Steelers, who won Super Bowl XL, and the 2010 Packers, who beat the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. Apparently this rule was mainly designed for the Steelers:
If the newly proposed playoff system were in place the last 10 years we would have added:— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) February 20, 2020
• five 10-win teams
• nine 9-win teams
• six 8-win teams
The team helped the most (by far) would have been the Steelers who would have made 4 more playoff trips & 10/10 the last 10 yrs. pic.twitter.com/VYWn7xBpID
Regardless, it’s hard to imagine these additional playoff games featuring eight- and nine-win teams having a significant competitive impact.
Pro: It’s Even More Valuable to Be a No. 1 Seed
Yes, the rule change would add a playoff game featuring an extremely mediocre team. But if you like watching good teams, this proposed format hypothetically should be appealing, too.
The current postseason format has a built-in advantage for the top two seeds in each conference: It gives them first-round byes and ensures that they play home games in the divisional round. To make the Super Bowl, a no. 1 seed has to win only a pair of home games, while a no. 6 seed has to win back-to-back-to-back road games.
The proposed new system increases the advantage given to the top seed by removing an advantage for the no. 2 seed. The third wild-card game in each conference would pit the no. 2 seed against the no. 7 seed, meaning the no. 1 seed would be the only team to get a first-round bye. Now, the no. 2 seed would also need to win back-to-back-to-back games to make the Super Bowl. Sure, the no. 7 seed probably wouldn’t beat the no. 2 seed often—who ya got, Duck Hodges or Patrick Mahomes?—but that extra week of wear and tear would make it less likely the no. 2 seed would win out and make the Super Bowl.
So if you like seeing the best teams in football play in the most important football game, this change could be a positive.
Con: It’s Even More Valuable to Be a No. 1 Seed
On second thought, however, no. 1 seeds don’t need more help making the Super Bowl. In the past seven Super Bowls, 10 of the 14 participants have been no. 1 seeds. The other four were no. 2 seeds. And the primary upshot of this change is that it would become more difficult for no. 2 seeds to make the Super Bowl.
If this change goes into effect, the best teams would likely advance deeper into the postseason, but the postseason would likely be less competitive. And quite frankly, it is already lacking in that regard. Don’t we like upsets, moments when the underdog lands a stiff uppercut on the champ’s chin? The NFL playoffs feature few of those; now, they’re poised to feature even fewer.
And don’t forget that no. 2 seeds are often pretty good! This year’s Chiefs were a no. 2 seed, and life is about to get a lot harder for teams like them.
No. 1 seeds already have an easy path to a championship. The NFL seemingly wants to give them a rubber stamp.
Pro: More Relevant Regular-Season Games
The new format should heat up two races: the race for the no. 1 seed and the race for the no. 7 seed. On the one hand, we’ll have the league’s best teams maximizing their intensity all season given the massive advantage provided to the no. 1 seed. On the other, your 3-6 team could be in the thick of the playoff hunt. More meaningful games for everybody!
Con: More Injuries
As football fans, we have to accept an unfortunate mathematical equation. If X is the amount of football games that are played in the world, and Y is the amount of injuries and brain damage caused by football, an increase in X can only lead to an increase in Y. No amount of safety-first rules or equipment changes can solve this.
The new CBA proposal would add a 17th game to the NFL regular season. Players have long opposed this, in spite of the fact that it would increase the league’s revenue and therefore their salaries, because they are the ones whose bodies will break and whose brains will be damaged.
Pro: This Fixes a Loophole ...
Here’s my favorite thing about the new proposal: If this goes into effect, no NFL team can receive a bye over a team with a better record ever again.
In 2018, the Patriots went 11-5 and received a no. 2 seed over the 12-4 Chargers. That’s because the top four seeds in a conference are reserved for division winners, and the Chargers finished behind the 13-3 Chiefs in the AFC West. That’s how the second-best team in the AFC got the no. 5 seed. Those Chargers lost in the divisional round to a rested Pats team that was playing at home despite having an inferior record.
Under the new system, this couldn’t happen. While it was possible for a team without the second-best record in a conference to get the no. 2 seed, it’s impossible for a team without a conference’s best record to get the no. 1 seed. From now on, there would be more equity with regard to byes.
Of course, under this new format, the 2018 Chargers still would not have gotten a no. 2 seed—they’d still have been the no. 5 seed, and still likely would’ve had to spend the playoffs on the road. But at least they wouldn’t have gotten screwed out of a bye.
Con: … While Adding an Even Bigger Loophole
MLB teams play 162 games. NBA and NHL teams play 82 games. Premier League teams play 38 games. These schedules may seem unrelated, but they share one commonality: They feature an even number of games.
This is true of basically every pro sports league in existence. Name one! It’s the case everywhere from Italy’s Lega Basket Serie A (30) to the NBA’s G League (50) to the East Coast Hockey League (72) to the Cape Cod Baseball League (44). There’s a good reason for this: The most inviolable rule of sports schedule-making is ensuring that all teams play an equal number of home and road games, and to have an equal number of home and road games, a team must play an even number of games. (Some college football conferences, like the Big Ten, play nine conference games. But would you expect anything else from a league called the Big Ten that actually has 14 teams?)
The NFL is going to break this rule. There is no way that teams can play an equal number of home and road games if their schedule is 17 games long. There must be nine of one and eight of another. And honestly, that’s a huge deal. If the MLB season was 161 games long—with some teams having 81 home games and others having 80—it would be unfair, but also a drop in a bucket. The NFL season is compact, and any difference between teams’ schedules has an outsize impact. If this proposal gets passed, half of NFL teams will play 12 percent more home games than the other half!
NFL owners seem to view this as an inventory problem. If the league adopts a 17-game regular season with three preseason games, they want to ensure that the teams with eight home games during the regular season will have two home games during the preseason for a grand total of 10 home dates. That’s because NFL owners charge the same price for meaningless preseason tickets as they do for regular-season tickets by forcing fans to buy preseason tickets as part of season-ticket packages.
However, the bigger problem here seems to be that the NFL is creating a competitive disadvantage for half the teams in the league. My favorite thing about this proposal is that it half-fixes a loophole that happens once in a blue moon. Yet it also introduces a new loophole that would affect every team every season. That doesn’t sound like a great proposal.