Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

08 Jan 2010

A New Idea for improving NFL Ownership

The following is really long, and I apologize. Short version of my idea -- owners of teams that never make the playoffs should be forced to sell their teams at auction. For the truly committed, my proposed method of doing do is presented below. Some things need to be updated, but I do note that the teams that would have been auctioned off (the Bills, 49ers, Texans, Browns and Lions) would still be auctioned now, and the Rams would be joining them.

Here We Go:

I’m a pro football fan. Not a Fantasy League playing, Direct Ticket watching obsessive, season ticket holding obsessive, but a fan. I’ve been to regular season and playoff games, even a Superbowl, and most weekends I watch at least one game. On a scale of 1 (no interest, can’t name more than two teams) to a 10 (at the game or in a sports bar, preferably a sports book in Vegas every weekend while being Commissioner of my fantasy league), I’d rate myself a solid 5, maybe even a 6.

What I hate is incompetence. In game incompetence -- stupid penalties, lousy play calling, killer turnovers, and bad clock management, is bad enough. What is even worse is on-going, franchise-wide incompetence. Repeated bad draft choices, poor trades, over-priced free agent pickups, and inexplicable coach/GM hiring and firing decisions that result in consistent losing year after year.

I think I have a solution to the latter problem. Make bad owners sell their teams. I know, that begs the question “what is bad?” My answer is easy. Bad is the opposite of good. Good in the NFL is winning, or even more narrowly, playoff success. Each year, 12 teams make the playoffs. With 32 teams, that gives each team a 37.5 percent chance of making the playoffs. A bad owner is an owner whose team consistently fails to make the playoffs.

Let’s take the idea one step further by stealing an idea from the PGA Tour (on the 1 to 10 fan scale, peg me as an 8 or 9 for golf). Professional golfers earn eligibility to play on the PGA Tour through successful play. There are essentially three ways established professional players can continue to play on the PGA tour. Those in the top 125 in tour earnings are exempt to play for the following year (those between 126 and 150 on the money list can play in events whose fields are not full or who are given an exemption by a tournament’s sponsor). Winners of tour events are exempt for two years. Winners of the four major championships or several other top events (e.g., the Players Championship) receive 5 year exemptions. Everyone else isn’t safe and has to qualify in some other way.1 Exemptions also do not cumulate. For example, a player winning two tour events receives a two year exemption, not two two-year exemptions. Players also only get to use their best exemption. If a player wins a major championship one year and a regular tour event the following year, he must use the longest lasting exemption (in this case, the four remaining years from his 5 year major event exemption).

I propose a similar system, modestly entitled the “Coleman System” for the NFL. Exemptions are earned as follows:

All playoff teams receive a 4 year exemption
Teams reaching the divisional playoffs either by winning a playoff game during wild card weekend or earning a bye receive a 5 year exemption
The four teams reaching the conference championship games receive 6 year exemptions
The two Super Bowl teams receive 8 year exemptions
The winner of the Super Bowl receives a 10 year exemption

Like the PGA tour, exemptions do not cumulate, and each owner can only use his or her best exemption. Owners that run out of exemptions will be forced to sell their teams to a new owner selected from a set of qualified bidders vetted by the NFL League Office in a secret auction -- highest bidder wins.

How do current teams stack up? I have gone back ten years (starting with the 1999-2000 season) to determine exemptions in each year, and then determined how years remain for each each team/owner’s longest exemption. I only need to go back 10 years because all exemptions that are more than 10 years old expire (even the 10 year Super Bowl winner exemptions).

The following teams have exemptions of 6 years or more (the current 2009-10 season using up one exemption year):

Arizona Cardinals -- sorry to fellow Bidwell detractors, but they did earn an 8 year exemption for reaching the Super Bowl last year
Baltimore Ravens -- reached the 2008 AFC Conference Championship game
Chicago Bears -- six remaining years from reaching Super Bowl XLI
Indianapolis Colts -- eight years left from winning Super Bowl XLI
New England Patriots -- take your pick -- seven years remain from the Super Bowl XXXIX win or reaching Super Bowl XLII
New York Giants -- have nine years left for their Super Bowl XLII win
Philadelphia Eagles -- six years for reaching the 2008-09 NFC Championship game
Pittsburgh Steelers -- have the 10 year exemption for their Super Bowl XLIII win

The only big surprise here is the Arizona Cardinals. All the other teams with six year+ exemptions are elite teams, with the possible exception of the Chicago Bears. More on that later.

Here is the list of teams with no exemptions left (these teams would have been up for auction before the 2009-10 season started):

Buffalo Bills -- Ralph Wilson may be a great guy, but the Jim Kelly/Thurman Thomas/Andre Reed/Bruce Smith glory days are long gone
Cleveland Browns -- Version 2.0 under Al Lerner has been a disaster
Detroit Lions -- I don’t have the heart for a cheap shot here
Houston Texans -- I toyed with granting expansion teams an 8 year exemption -- this would be their last year
San Francisco 49ers -- the Raiders get all the bad Bay Area press, but the Niners recent playoff history is even worse -- Al Davis and the boys still have two years left from the eight year exemption they earned by reaching Super Bowl XXXVII

Two other teams are on life support with exemptions due to expire at the end of the year -- the Cincinnati Bengals (who look likely to earn a exemption) and the St. Louis Rams (who are probably only a few weeks away from being eliminated from the playoffs and any more exemptions).

Finally, I would give owners of teams that lost their exemptions a five year exemption to give them time to rebuild (and perhaps eight year exemptions to owners of any new expansion teams).

How would my system work out? I don’t know. I suspect owners with expiring exemptions might shape up. Egomaniacs like Jerry Jones (the Cowboys have a four years left for earning a bye in the 2007-08 playoffs) and Daniel Snyder (three years remain for earning a wild card spot after the 2007-08 season) might actually turn their teams over to strong and independent GMs and coaches. The pressure on cheapskate owners with cap space to retain their best players and acquire new talent in the draft or through free agency would be intense. We might even see more player movement at the trade deadline or more old-fashioned trades in the off-season. I’m guessing most fans would like this, or at least find it entertaining.

I see two potential downsides. The first is collusion and outright cheating. Teams either with safe playoff spots and seedings or teams with no chance of reaching the playoffs might tank games to help teams with short or expiring exemptions to reach the playoffs. Hopefully, such instances would be rare. I have a hard time seeing a team tank a game to save a traditional hated rival. With luck, allegations of tanking would be no more common than now, where teams assured of their playoff positions rest players down the stretch, or when lousy teams start thinking about their draft positions.

The second downside is revolving ownership. In the current rough economy, there are .only so many billionaire sports fans to serve as new team owners. Just like mediocre or poor choices get second and even third chances to coach teams (do the names Norv Turner and Eric Mangini ring any bells), an owner forced to sell a team might turn around and buy another team at one of these forced auctions. An Admittedly scary prospect, but all hope is not lost. One solution would be an outright ban on owners who were forced to sell one team from buying another. A less severe rule would be a waiting period -- maybe three to five years, for owners who were forced to sell have to meet before becoming qualified bidders for new teams. The NFL could also relax its rules on partnership groups, allow corporate owners, or go the Green Bay route and allow a team’s fans to buy shares in a team. Let the lawyers and accountants earn their money and figure out a compromise here.

Is my system fair? I think it is. Owners fire coaches and GMs that don’t perform. Underperforming players get cut or traded. I see no reason owners should be exempt from performance standards.

One niggling concern that occurred to me and may have occurred to you are teams with a long history of success hitting a rough patch. Who wants to see a team that reached the playoffs four or five years in a row lose their exemption by missing the playoffs for the next four or five years. How often does this happen? One answer to this question is to go back to the ten year period (1999-2000 to 2008-09) that is the subject of this article. In any year, there are 66 total years of exemptions available:

4*4 years for the losers of the Wild Card Round
4*5 years for the losers in the Divisional Playoffs
2*6 years for the two Conference Championship game losers
1*8 years for the Super Bowl loser
1*10 years for the Super Bowl winner

or 16 + 20 + 12 + 8 +10 = 66 exemption years for each year’s playoffs. Over 10 years, there are 10*66 = 660 exemption years NFL teams can earn. Divided across the 32 teams (31 for 1999-2000 to 2001-02), the average number of exemption years teams could earn for the 10 years is 20.8 exemption years. “Above average” teams earn 21 or more exemption years each decade, and “Below average” teams earn 20 or fewer exemption years.

The following are the above average teams (21+ exemption years):

New England Patriots -- 49 exemption years
Indianapolis Colts -- 48 exemption years
Philadelphia Eagles -- 42 exemption years
Pittsburgh Steelers -- 41 exemption years
New York Giants -- 35 exemption years
Tennessee Titans -- 33 exemption years
Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- 32 exemption years
St. Louis Rams -- 32 exemption years
Baltimore Ravens -- 30 exemption years
Seattle Seahawks -- 30 exemption years
Carolina Panthers -- 23 exemption years

Three other teams -- the Packers, Vikings, and Chargers -- just miss the 21+ threshold with 20 exemption years each. The top six teams in exemptions years (the Patriots, Colts, Eagles, Steelers, Giants, and Titans) earned a total of 248 of the 660 possible exemption years for the past decade (37.6 percent).2 These same top six exemption year earners for the past decade each have a minimum current exemption of five years. Of all 11 above average exemption year earners for the past decade, only one (St. Louis) has an exemption expiring after this year. Everyone else has at least a four year exemption.

So with the one exception of St. Louis, there are no above average exemption year earners over the past decade in danger of losing their exemption to continue playing under their current owners. I’m okay with an owner/team being given a one-time four year exemption if the team earned 30 or more exemption years in the past decade. So St. Louis has four years after this year to turn things around. Problem solved.

I leave it up to others to come up with an test similar systems for other sports. Having an average of around two exemption years per team available for each year feels about right (the Coleman System for the NFL -- 66 exemption years for 32 teams equals an average of 2.06 exemption years per team). Leagues with more playoff teams like the 16 available in the NBA and NHL would earn shorter playoff exemptions. One system that might work for the NBA and NHL would award 3 three year exemptions to first round losers, 4 year exemptions to second round losers, 5 year exemptions to losers in the conference championship, six years to the Finals loser, and an 8 year exemption for the champion (that would be 64 exemption exemptions each year for the 30 teams, and average of 2.13 exemption years per team -- trust me). The issue could be revisited if teams fold or contract.

Baseball is harder. With eight teams making it each year, seven year exemptions for first round losers, eight years for League Championship series losers, nine years for the World Series loser and 10 years for the World Series winner would be one option (63 exemption years across the 30 years would yield 2.10 exemption years per team). I see two problems. First, the spread between a first round loser (seven years) and a World Series winner (10 years) is only three years. I’d like to see a system with a larger range of awards, but I don’t want to see champions get more than a 10 year exemption. The second problem would be the 16 National League teams bitching that the 14 American League teams have it easier.

I see a way around each problem. With the thousands of baseball statistical geeks out there, someone should be able to come up with a solution to widening the exemption year range without exceeding ten years for the World Series Champion. Another option would be to expand the playoffs -- more teams means fewer exemption years for early round losers. With regards to the National League/American League problem -- re-alignment. Pick one National League Central Division team (say the Pirates or Reds), and stick them in the American League Central. Two leagues with six divisions of five teams each -- all with equal chances to earn exemptions. If the Pirates or Reds balk at moving -- force another auction, or more mildly, point out that large market teams, especially large market American League teams (Yankees and Red Sox, anyone) have been carrying you guys for years between the luxury tax/revenue sharing and by having their fans show up in your stadiums to watch their teams play.

Posted by: colemankamt on 08 Jan 2010

1 reply , Last at 16 Jan 2010, 4:47pm by tuluse

Re: A New Idea for improving NFL Ownership
by tuluse :: Sat, 01/16/2010 - 4:47pm

I think you put too much emphasis on post-season success, when it's largely luck based. Also, what about teams like the 2005 Chiefs who missed the playoffs with a 10-6 record, or the 08 Patriots who missed with an 11-5 record?

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