Inside Slant: Yes to playoff expansion

October, 10, 2013
10/10/13
12:00
PM ET
The Atlanta Falcons' locker room was eerily silent late Monday night. Players spoke softly to one another and nearly in whispers to reporters. The usual hustle and bustle -- win, loss or tie -- was replaced by the low sounds of reality settling in.

The Falcons' 30-28 loss to the New York Jets had left them 1-4, a start that has almost always squandered a team's postseason chances in the NFL's current playoff structure. Coaches knew it and players understood the situation as well. Tight end Tony Gonzalez angrily noted the team is "in a deep hole, a deep, deep hole."

October was but a week old, and already the Falcons had almost no realistic hope of achieving their season's goal. Their predicament quickly came to mind this week when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell discussed the possibility of an expanded playoff field as early as 2015.

[+] EnlargeMike Smith
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsIf the postseason expands, a slow start like the one Mike Smith's 1-4 Falcons have experienced would seem less devastating.
Goodell acknowledged the league might add two teams, one from the AFC and one from the NFC, to create a 14-team field. No doubt, the league's primary inspiration is the revenue that additional playoff games would provide. And certainly, there are some legitimate concerns about inviting closer to half of the teams (14 of 32) to the postseason.

Just the same, I really think there would be some positive outcomes from a fan perspective if the proposal is enacted as discussed. Atop that list is lessening the blow of a poor start for a team like the Falcons, who have some deeper issues, but could be a better second-half team if and when some of their injured players return.

The Falcons are heading into their bye. What if they emerge from that period, get on a roll and win, say, seven of their final 11 games? In the current playoff structure, the resulting 8-8 record almost certainly wouldn't be good enough for the playoffs. With an additional slot available, that conversation becomes more reasonable, and if nothing else, provides some realistic drama to the final 2 1/2 months of their season.

To me, the extension of relevant games is a win for fans across the board. So would a connected proposal that, according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, would reduce the preseason to three games. More playoff games in exchange for less preseason seems like a positive step to me.

In a Twitter conversation Wednesday night, many of you objected strongly to playoff expansion, even if it was connected to a shorter preseason. You like the sanctity of the NFL postseason, which sends 20 teams home and rewards only 12. Tweeted @tomwags: "I don't wan the NFL to turn into the NBA. If it ain't broke don't fix it."

You also don't like the likely consequence of the second seed losing its bye in order to make the schedule work. And you wonder if an underachieving but talented team could just turn it on in the postseason. @Kuehntw12: "I'd hate to see a 7-9 team get hot in the playoffs and win the SB. Kills the emphasis put on season games."

From my perspective, the presumed single bye from each conference would offer a greater reward to the team that has the best regular-season performance. It might also reduce the possibility of non-competitive end-of-season games. And frankly, I'm not sure how founded the concerns are of a losing team -- or even one with an 8-8 record -- busting up the postseason.

Using ESPN's playoff standings tool, I went back and checked the past 10 years of results. No 7-9 teams (or worse) would have made the playoffs as a seventh seed, and 15 of the 20 presumptive No. 7 seeds would have had a winning record. Here is the complete breakdown:

  • 11-5: One team
  • 10-6: Four
  • 9-7: 10
  • 8-8: five

That doesn't mean we wouldn't see a 7-9 team get a wild-card spot, but a 10-year sample size is pretty significant. Regardless, at this stage of the NFL's development, I'm not sure how many improvements can be made without some give and take. And I for one would accept the tradeoff.

For fans, the positives of playoff expansion include more regular-season drama, two additional playoff matchups each season, and (hopefully) a shorter preseason. I understand the ethereal but deeply-held sanctity of the playoffs as well as the concerns about lesser teams getting involved. But when you remove emotion and fear of change, I wonder if you won't see playoff expansion as a positive exchange as well.

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