Twelve years ago on Jan. 8, 2011, the American sports industrial complex was finally and fully revealed to be mostly a sham. The New Orleans Saints, defending Super Bowl champions, arrived in Seattle with a record of 11-5, two wins too few to win their own division that year. They were a 10-point favorite against the Seahawks, who had a 7-9 record but had somehow managed to win their dumpster fire of a division. This was the first time in the National Football League’s (NFL) history that a team with a losing record had made the playoffs.
What happened that day was called the beast quake. The Seahawks secured victory when Marshawn Lynch, aka Beast Mode, broke nine tackles during a 67-yard touchdown run. Seattle’s vaunted 12th-man fan base freaked out so hard they registered on a seismograph. And beast quake was born.
Why England’s System Is Superior
Something similar will most likely happen in Tampa, Florida, this coming Monday night. The Dallas Cowboys, who came within a game of securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and a bye week with an overall No. 1 seed, instead have to travel to Tampa to play Tom Brady. Brady’s Buccaneers are currently ranked 17th in the league. The NFL has 32 teams, which puts the Bucs right below midway. All four teams in the Cowboys’ division are ranked above the Buccaneers, yet one of those teams will not be playing in the postseason and the Buccaneers will have home-field advantage for the first round.
This system is broken. The Seattle Seahawks had no business in the playoffs a decade ago, and the Buccaneers have none now. The NFL, and American sports in general, are beholden to a bizarre system of determining champions based in large part on luck, and it’s time for things to change.
Consider the English Premier League (EPL), arguably the most popular and powerful sports competition in the world. Their champion is determined by a double round-robin tournament where all 20 teams play each other home and away. Wins earn three points, draws earn one. The champion is whoever has the most points at the end of the year after playing a grueling 38 games over 10 months. No playoffs, no championship; just wins against the exact same appointments determine who the best soccer team in England is every year. Goal difference and goals scored also come into play.
But most importantly, the three worst teams in EPL don’t get to stay in EPL. They move down to the English Football League (EFL) championship, and three teams from EFL replace them. This system of promotion and relegation has multiple levels throughout English football.
By comparison, the five major American sports leagues determine their champions through a conference championship structure whereby divisional champions play each other within a conference championship and the conference champions play each other in a grand final, usually a best-of-seven series. The NFL and Major League Soccer (MLS) are the exceptions, each determining their grand final via one big game, the Super Bowl and MLS cup respectively.
Playoff Games Make Championship Games Irrelevant
The advantages and disadvantages are obvious. The American playoff structure creates essentially two seasons: the regular and the post. The regular season qualifies you for the second season. This creates the level of exciting elimination-style play that we see in the various world cups every four years, but on an annual cycle. Lots of money can be made with this kind of circus environment and spectacle every year. Exciting and epic events happen every year in the various U.S. playoffs. Things like the Red Sox coming back to beat the Yankees after being down three games in the 2004 ALCS. Or the L.A. Kings playing three game sevens to make it to the Stanley Cup.
Yes, playoffs are exciting. They are the stuff U.S. sports legends are made from, but when we take a closer look the flaws become apparent.
The 2004 Red Sox that finally broke the curse of the Bambino had an epic ALCS against the Yankees, then they swept the Cardinals in the World Series. The L.A. Kings that had to win three Game sevens on the road just to make it to the Stanley Cup almost swept the New York Rangers when they got there, the Rangers forced three overtime games but only managed to win one out of the five games played. In other words, the final was ultimately irrelevant. It is often the case that the best teams in a U.S. sports league meet in their conference playoffs before the grand final that actually determines the champion.
From 1984 until John Elway finally won a Super Bowl in 1998, the NFC won 13 consecutive Super Bowls. And these games weren’t even close. NFC teams ground the AFC into the dust by a combined point differential of +271 points or the equivalent of 45 touchdowns. During that decade and a half of losing, AFC teams only managed to score more than 20 points three times, and never broke 30. The NFC never scored fewer than 20 points and scored more than 30 points nine times. This comes out to an average NFC Super Bowl score of 37.7 points and an AFC average of 17.8. For 13 years, the NFC had a 20-point, about three touchdowns, advantage over the AFC. And most of that dominance came from one NFC division: the NFC East. Of the 13 wins that the NFC enjoyed three came from the Dallas Cowboys, two from the Washington Redskins (now Commanders), and two from the New York Giants.
All of this shows that playoff systems are not a good way to determine which team is best. They generally provide good entertainment value, but they simply aren’t objective. And the NFL is almost certainly the worst offender. Traditionally there was no interleague play in Major League Baseball until the World Series, but now every team plays every other team every year in all the major sports leagues except for the NFL. NFL teams only manage to see every other team in the NFL every four years, but they play each team in their own division twice every year. For every time the L.A. Rams play the L.A. Chargers they have played the Seattle Seahawks eight times at least, more if they meet in the playoffs.
Switching this bizarre system to a more objective European-style system wouldn’t be difficult. The thing that bolsters Euro sports leagues in their promotion-relegation system is the multiple levels of lesser leagues to pull from. There are official minor leagues for all the U.S. sports leagues except the NFL. But this problem wouldn’t be difficult to fix for the NFL, because it could easily be split into a major and minor league itself.
The NFL should be two 16-team leagues. The bottom two teams from the top league would go down every year and the top two from the bottom would get promoted. Each year every team in each league would play each other in a single round-robin, and if we still wanted a Super Bowl at the end, just have teams one and two play to determine the champion. The only tricky parts would be how to determine home-field advantage for the round-robin, and how to determine who goes to the lower league when the split occurs.
I propose the fairest way to adjudicate this would be determined by historical winning percentage plus championships. The upper league should still be called the NFL while the lower league would become the AFL (American Football League). In the initial season, each league would consist of the following teams:
Essentially the ranking would be determined by win percentage, and championships made teams move up one rank if the team above them had fewer championships. The only team this really affects is the Minnesota Vikings. Their complete lack of championships essentially turns into a penalty that gets them kicked out of the upper league (barely, missed by one spot), but they still are ranked ahead of multiple teams with Super Bowls (even a few with multiple Super Bowls).
It would be even easier to fix the other leagues: Just get rid of all the playoffs before the Stanley Cup, Finals, World Series, and MLS Cup. Have No. 1 and No. 2 play in each of those championships and create some system of relegation connecting the lower leagues to the upper leagues.
This is all theoretical and will almost certainly never happen for a variety of logistical reasons. But something needs to be changed because the Cowboys are probably going to lose to the Buccaneers Monday night when the Bucs shouldn’t even be in the playoffs. According to my analysis, these teams shouldn’t even be in the same league.
According to win percentage combined with championships, the Cowboys are No. 2 overall in my rankings and the Buccaneers are No. 31. Yet our structure has them playing in the same postseason with a significant advantage to the Buccaneers. That’s a joke. And yes, part of that joke is on the Cowboys’ management because their culture of losing in the playoffs has lasted for three decades now. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Bucs are a horrible sports franchise that shouldn’t be playing in the postseason.
I maintain that eliminating playoffs actually makes every game more exciting because more is at stake; it turns every game into a potential championship game. Teams in the NFL will be fighting not to be relegated every weekend. It would be a simpler, more objective format, with higher stakes for every game. The only downside would be all the ad revenue that the sports leagues would lose over the playoffs being canned. But sports should be more about the competition than the money anyway.