Pete Carroll may talk about how every game is a playoff game for his team from here on out (and he’s certainly correct in that assessment), but if the NFL has its way, teams such as Carrolls almost certain .500-or worse Seahawks may be shot out of future playoff processes. And the man at the root of the debate runs the team trying to knock the Seahawks off their tiny perch this Sunday.
Barring an historic collapse down the stretch, the 11-2 Atlanta Falcons wont have to worry about their playoff seeding as the team with the NFCs best record if the season ended today, theyd have home-field advantage as long as they stayed alive in the postseason. But Rich McKay, the Falcons team president and the co-chair of the leagues Competition Committee, said this week at the leagues Owners Meetings that hes been in favor of a system by which the teams with the best records would be better rewarded for their success, and winners in weaker divisions might not automatically receive opening home playoff games.
This has been a subject of serious debate through this season, because of the possibility that an NFC West team be it the Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams, or San Francisco 49ers might walk away with a division title by default at 8-8 or 7-9. In a Seahawks-friendly scenario, a Seattle team that didnt even break .500 would host the New Orleans Saints, who could finish the season as high in the standings as high as 13-3, would have to come out to Qwest Field and play the road team to a Seahawks squad whose win total they nearly doubled, and who they beat handily in the regular season.
In addition, teams like the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Green Bay Packers are looking at the very real possibility of missing the playoffs altogether with as many as 11 or 12 wins because a division winner would push the lower teams in better divisions out.
Giants co-owner John Mara, placed firmly in the center of the conversation by his own teams tenuous standing, spoke definitively. “For me, a team that wins their division with a .500 record or worse shouldn’t necessarily get a home game over a team that wins 10 or 11 games,” he said this week. “I can’t tell you I have a lot of hope about that passing. It’s been discussed in the past and never gone anywhere.”
Its a problem that has plagued the NFL from time to time, but what happens in the NFC West this season could push a vote over the top. I’ve brought it up twice and never had real success getting it passed. I think it something we should consider, McKay said this week of the idea, which has received as many as 18 votes but never the 24 needed for approval at the leagues off-season meetings.
The current system slots the division winners in each conference by record and takes the two wild-card teams from the pool of best non-division titles. Its a set-it-and-forget-it concept that affects the competitive balance the league constantly insists is at the heart of its game, and even the most ardent Seahawks or Rams homer would be hard-pressed to convince anyone that having a sub-500 team, who beat up on other sub-500 teams to steal a playoff berth, is the best thing for the sport.
The re-seeding proposal was shot down in 2008, when McKay tried to lobby for it in the face of opposition from team owners like New Englands Robert Kraft, who believed in the tradition that rewards division winners.
“I do believe if you win a division, it’s good for your fans to know you will have a home game,” Kraft said at the time. “We wanted to keep that.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said at the time that while the support fell short of a vote at that time, the debate was enough to keep the idea in the leagues mindset. The focus I said to the competition committee is what are the alternatives we have to make sure every game is as competitive as possible.”
That sounded suspiciously like the blahspeak were so used to from Goodell, but as galvanic instances tend to force the hands of the owners, having several major-market teams staying home in January at the benefit of the Seahawks or Rams would set Goodell on edge for a host of reasons.
From a competitive standpoint, its a real problem, and its easy to argue that winning a weak division is actually a better reason for being shot out of the postseason. Per Football Outsiders DVOA efficiency metric, which adjusts for situation and opponent and therefore goes a bit deeper than traditional won-loss metrics, the Seahawks have enjoyed the 30th-easiest schedule in the league to date, and rank in the middle of the pack regarding their last three opponents.
Thats what happens when youve already played the 49ers and Cardinals twice, and youve been beaten up by a Rams team you must face again in the season finale.
The Rams, because of that very same easy turn with the NFC West (not to mention the Detroit Lions, Denver Broncos, and Washington Redskins) have had the leagues easiest path to their current division lead, and only three teams have an easier go from here on out.
On the other hand, while the Saints, Packers, Giants and Eagles have had relatively easy turns through Week 14, all but Philadelphia faces a top-ten tough road to the end of the regular season. The situation is not as drastic in the AFC, though more than a few interested observers wearing Jets, Dolphins, Ravens, and Colts replica jerseys will be watching the AFC West-leading San Diego Chargers to see if they steal a playoff spot from a more deserving suitor.
In the end, re-seeding the playoff per final record makes sense. In any game where theres a scoreboard and a sense that those numbers mean something, the sense of reward for achievement must stand true.
That lack of certainty is what millions of college football fans hate about the BCS system, and while it would take Goodell and a team of scientists years to compose something so historically convoluted as that, it feels that an unfair playing field in 2010 could be the catalyst for fair and comprehensive change.