Despite the NFL’s undisputed status as the most dominant professional sports league, it needs some improvement. A few lingering issues still require some resolution. In particular, scheduling, both during the regular season and postseason should be changed. I offer five proposals for changes and explanations for why they are essential.
1. Seed playoffs based on overall records
Divisional winners do not necessarily deserve the top four seeds. Why should a team that managed to win a soft division automatically host a wild card playoff game against an opponent with more wins? What should matter more in seeding – having a record slightly above .500 or worse, along with the fortune of competing against three perceivably weaker teams, or having more wins in total?
And this is not a theoretical problem either. In 2002, the NFL split into four four-team divisions. Since then there has been a wild card tem with a better record that has played at a divisional champion in 13 of 15 seasons. The only times this did not occur is 2004 and ’06. In fact, in eight of the past 10 seasons two or more wild card teams have had a better record than the division champion they faced.
To address this disparity, I suggest the NFL model an approach similar to that which the NCAA uses for its postseason tournament. Champions of perceived weaker conferences are often seeded below at-large selections with superior records in the NCAA Tournament. This way, an NFL divisional champion is assured of an automatic berth in the playoffs, but not guaranteed one of the top four seeds. If a wild card team has a better record, that team should be seeded accordingly.
2. Schedule divisional games for every team over the final three weeks of the regular season
If the NFL wants to sustain interest among the fans of as many teams as possible through December, the league needs extend the drama of the playoff race. One obvious way is push half of everyone’s divisional games to the last three weeks. Playing those crucial games as late as possible is more likely to delay teams from being able to clinch divisional championships.
Therefore, a first-place team after Thanksgiving weekend could still be caught by one of those only a few games behind. If the divisional leader were to stumble in those final three regular season games, another in the division could sneak past the leader to claim the crown.
3. Change scheduling related to Thursday night games
Teams playing on Thursdays should have the weekend beforehand without a game. Football players need multiple days to both recuperate from the previous game and prepare for the next. Expecting a team to play on Sunday then play four days later is cruelly absurd. It is especially hard for the visiting team.
Also, there should be no Thursday night game in Weeks 2, 3, 17 or 18 (more on that in a moment). Every team will be able to play its required Thursday game during the other 14 weeks with three playing on Thanksgiving Day. To make this possible and to keep the regular season ending around the end of the calendar year, it will be necessary to start the season on Labor Day weekend with an additional week of regular season games. Which brings me too…
4. Give every team two bye weeks
This will be necessary partially due to giving the previous week off to those teams playing on Thursday. It would be grossly unfair to teams playing on Thursday night in September to have only one bye week and not having a break later in the season as most teams would have. This suggestion is not a new concept for the NFL since every team had two bye weeks during the 1993 season.
An exception would apply to those playing in the season opener. Every team finishes its final preseason game on a Thursday. Therefore, those playing in the regular season opener will have seven days between games anyway.
Additionally, the networks that broadcast games should love this idea. A second bye would add an extra week to the season. Therefore, they would have the additional revenue from sponsors for one more week. This move also allays pressure from the networks requesting more football to broadcast without actually adding more games to the 16-game schedule.
5. Pay a bonus to winners of every regular season game
What would motivate players to give an honest effort to win games despite having no chance at the postseason? What would keep players from claiming dubious injuries coinciding with their elimination from the playoff race? Simply put, money talks.
The NFL already pays players for participating in each postseason game, in effect, giving them a bonus for winning and advancing to the next round.
This reward would go to every player on the active roster of the victorious team. It would likely mean reducing base salaries. However, it would give a tangible incentive to players to continue to suit up when previously they only have pride on the line. The league needs to give them a reason to play and actually care about the outcome.
The NFL has demonstrated the willingness to change. The addition of Thursday games for every team and scheduling regular season games outside of the U.S. prove that attitude exists among the powerbrokers in the league office. However, with player safety becoming an openly acknowledged concern, permitting more time between games contributes to recovery from injuries. Additionally, changes need to be implemented that give fans’ hope in December that their team could still advance to the playoffs or at least that they will see sincere efforts to win every week.
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.
(Roger Goodell photo courtesy of Getty Images)