Now that we’ve crossed the finish line of a 17-week marathon, we’ve got two options.
We can collapse, or we can keep running.
Let’s keep running.
It’s the final Morning Aftermath of the season, a feature spawned on the fly several weeks into the 2009 campaign, and then tweaked into something but substantive and manageable.
It’s sort of like mailing it in, but on really nice stationery.
1. A proposed solution to the problem of meaningless late-season games.
Though the issue has been around for years, the problem came sharply into focus when the Colts opted to abandon the pursuit of perfection under the guise of resting starters for the postseason. And the Colts fueled the fire by offering up lame — and factually incorrect — excuses for trying hard in one meaningless game, and then not trying very hard in their next one.
Fans don’t like it. The teams that need help to get a seat at the playoff table from teams not inclined to help themselves don’t like it, either.
Most importantly, the Commissioner hates it.
But what can be done? A mandate to publish an official depth chart and to respect it into early January easily can be avoided by exaggerating and/or fabricating injuries — after weeks of otherwise concealing them. And incentives like extra draft selections won’t prompt a team with a chance at a Super Bowl to risk an injury to a key player like Wes Welker for an extra fourth-round pick. (Besides, the notion that a good team can be rewarded via picks for choosing to try to be good runs counter to the notion of the draft as a tool for ensuring competitive balance.)
So sticks or carrots simply won’t work in this context. Instead, the league needs to incorporate a natural competitive incentive that will prompt all playoff teams to continue to try to play hard, regardless of whether it’s Week One or Week 17.
And the solution requires real creativity, along with a willingness to dramatically change a flawed playoff model.
Here’s our proposal: Augment the current playoff qualification system with seeding assignments made by a neutral committee, similar to the approach the NCAA employs when selecting teams for the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
The six playoff teams would be determined as they currently are. But then the committee would seed the six teams in each conference based on their play during a specific period, such as the final four games of the regular season. So if a team like the Saints, which started 13-0, falls apart down the stretch, they’d be at the mercy of the committee when it comes to getting home-field advantage. And if a team like the Colts chooses to rest starters for the postseason, they’d risk losing the top seed to the Chargers, who finished with 11 straight wins.
And while we’re venturing outside the box, let’s go ahead and frolic in the poppies. How about getting rid of playoff byes and adding two teams to the playoff field per conference, and how about letting them be true wild-card teams, added based not on total won-loss record but on how they’re performing late in the year?
For 2009, for example, we’d make the Texans and the Browns (yes, the Browns) the seventh and eighth seeds in the AFC playoff field, and we’d invite the Panthers and the 49ers (or maybe the Falcons) to join the NFC party.
Let’s face it — a revolutionary adjustment is needed in order to make teams that have secured a berth in the tournament sufficiently motivated to keep pushing for the highest possible seed. This process would create such an incentive, and it also would enhance interest in the game by spawning speculation and anticipation regarding the possible seeds and wild-card teams, and considerable debate regarding the decisions that ultimately are made.
It also would keep hope alive deep into the season for all teams, making even a franchise that started the year 1-11 theoretically capable of turning things around and sneaking into the postseason by getting hot when the season is on the line.
Before scoffing (if you haven’t already), keep in mind that, for more than 40 years, the NFL determined home-field advantage for league and conference championship games via an arbitrary rotation. In 1972, for example, the Steelers hosted the 15-0 Dolphins in the AFC title game.
The seeding concept came from a realization by the NFL that excellence should be rewarded via home-field advantage. But now that the current seeding process is creating a negative impact on competitive balance and threatening the integrity of the game, the league needs to find a way to determine playoff seeding that encourages all teams to approach the latter stages of the regular season not like a second preseason, but like an early postseason.
And the encouragement needs to come not from a list of “thou shalts” or a draft-day nightcrawler, but from the actual thing that is causing teams to shut it down — positioning in the ultimate playoff tree.
Though we suspect that this idea has a very remote chance at ever being adopted, our broader point is that the solution needs to address the root of the problem. Teams are laying down because a win won’t enhance their playoff seeding, and a loss won’t hurt it. The only way to remove that mentality is to find a way to make late-season wins and losses have a potential impact on whether a team will play its postseason games at home or on the road.
Regardless of the specific device that the league uses, the NFL needs to find a way to make late-season games have a real impact on playoff seeding. Nothing else will fix an unacceptable situation.