The inclusion of a team with a sub-.500 record in the NFL playoffs has me irked, but I’ve disliked the playoff structure in all sports for some time now. I have a plan for how to fix this, not just for the NFL, but for all major sports. It’s a simple five-step plan, so common major sports leagues across the world can get on board.
1. Allow teams to opt out
I get the fact that this will rarely (if ever) happen, but I like the chance of it. Before the playoffs begin if you get handed a really tough break (key injured player, local catastrophe, natural disaster) and you really don’t think you can win than you should have the opportunity to back out. The benefit to the team doing this is that they improve their draft standing. The benefit to the league and the fans is hopefully a more competitive team enters in their place and a more entertaining product is on the field.
2. Ditch the bye week
The NHL and NBA get it right. There is no lull in action for teams. You are either in or you’re out. This should add games to the mix, not take them away. Even if they are lopsided games there are still those extra teams and extra chances for the upset. Upsets are exciting; they are what make for truly interesting playoff scenarios.
3. For playoff position, ditch the divisions and conferencs
I imagine it might make a lot of sense for leagues to restructure their entire playing schedule if conferences and divisions don’t mean anything, but that’s a different conversation. I am tired of seeing teams from horrible conferences get in because they are the slightly less worse of the group, or a team get a home playoff game/series because their division is really weak. Seeding is based on records or points or wins, however you do it. In the event of ties, go with head-to-head matchups. If that is a tie then it’s strength of schedule.
4. Let the top teams choose their opponents and venue
Let’s say 16 teams get in. The team ranked first gets to pick their opponent and where they play. Then the next highest-ranking team picks, and so forth until all the teams are matched up. You could televise this and it would get huge ratings. It would also add an air of mystery to it and teams would play harder toward the end of the year for two reasons: one, they would want to get to pick, and not be picked; two, they want to be viewed as a tough team to play. This is a situation where you want to be picked last if you’re not doing the picking. “But wouldn’t it just go 1 vs. 16, 2 vs. 15, and so on?” See article 4a. The process repeats for each round of the playoffs. In the case of a series each team may select their own “home” venue. Where I think this becomes really interesting is with teams that play really close to one another.
4a. Provide financial incentive for more difficult opponents/venues
All players and coaches participating in the playoffs should get a flat rate for playing. Winners should get a bonus. This is like the NFL Pro Bowl, or even the UFC, and I think it’s a great incentive. The fun part is making the incentive change based on difficulty. The rate of pay should be higher if you defeat the No. 1 seed than if you beat No. 16. It should also be higher if you’re on the road than if you’re at home. Even playing on a neutral site would add a little bit. I see it as a sliding scale of 1-15 percent based on the seed you beat (15 percent for beating the 1-seed, no increase if you beat the 16-seed). Then an additional 30 percent if you win on the road, 15 percent if you win at a neutral site, and no increase if you win at home. Players and coaches alike would be tempted to pass up on home games, or at least look at neutral sites for the extra cash. Teams may also desire to face slightly harder competition for the added pay check. If nothing else the format looks pretty similar to what it does now (if everyone wants to play at home and they all take the worst team available).
5. All series should be seven game series (in the 2-2-1-1-1 format)
The NFL is excluded from this rule, but there is no need for five-game series, 2-3-2 series or one-game playoffs if everything else is taken into account. Travel isn’t a big deal, you can have a day off between games, home and away. I want to know that the better team won, rather than a team got on a roll or circumstances had anything to do with it. If there are any circumstances it should have been within someone’s control as per section 4.
More than anything I want to try and correct a few glaring issues I see with the current playoff formats. I want teams with poor records eliminated, or at least restrict them from the type of seeding that belongs to teams with much better records. I want there to be intrigue right up until the last second in the regular season and the playoffs. Seedings are often locked in so far in advance that teams phone it in for the final game of the year. I want series to be fair, I want teams to be interested in winning, I want exciting scenarios and I want the unexpected. Clearly no structure is perfect, and if you have some ideas I’d love to hear them.