Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

17 Mar 2014

MMQB: Replay, Playoff Expansion

PK previews the annual league meetings, with fights over the extra point, playoff expansion (boo!), and officiating. Also: how the salary floor has helped the middle class of free agency, and early free agency thoughts.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 17 Mar 2014

24 comments, Last at 19 Mar 2014, 9:11am by nat


by RickD :: Mon, 03/17/2014 - 1:46pm

Hate playoff expansion. It's going to give the #1 seed a huge advantage over everyone else. And we know that this is going to be followed a few years from now by adding an 8th playoff team from each conference.

I wish, if they really felt expansion was necessary, that they'd do it all at once instead of subjecting us to this b.s. intermediate stage.

by dank067 :: Mon, 03/17/2014 - 4:53pm

Yeah, I actually don't think 14/32 teams would make for a bad field most seasons, but the structure of it is too awkward and it makes a 16-team field inevitable. Not looking forward to that, but especially holding out hope that it doesn't become an impetus or justification for expanding beyond 32 teams.

by Sixknots :: Tue, 03/18/2014 - 1:20am

What's wrong with more teams? I'd like to see 36 ...or 40 someday. More employment for players and more chance for fans to actually attend at reasonable cost (maybe).
And more employment for pundits and football statisticians...You're welcome FO!

by dank067 :: Tue, 03/18/2014 - 11:04am

Ha yeah, more stats to compile and all-22 to watch for sure. I just feel the talent pool is starting to get watered down. What Ron Wolf predicted in the mid-90s seems to be coming true: teams will pay big money for blue chippers, dump anyone over 30 right at the moment they begin to fall off and then just fill in the rest of the roster with guys you drafted on minimum contracts.

It's possible I only feel this way because I'm a Packers fan though, since they have very obviously embraced this approach with open arms. Maybe if there were more teams with more $$ to spend they would be more willing to give veteran players a shot. Hell, the Packers probably don't sign Peppers without the unexpected cap bump this year. There will also be coming changes to college football and further insight into head injuries that will also have some kind of effect on the talent pool.

by tuluse :: Tue, 03/18/2014 - 11:40am

There are two problems with more teams.

One is talent dilution. This will mean that talent poor teams will be even worse than they are now. Did you enjoy watching the Jaguars play last year? Do you want to see 4 teams with that level of talent "competing" each year?

The second problem is that each team will end up playing an even smaller percentage of the total league. This means it's even harder to compare teams to each other. Connectivity is already an issue and it would get even worse.

by Guido Merkens :: Tue, 03/18/2014 - 11:59am

I'm not convinced that talent dilution is a problem. For one, QB is the most important position on the field and arguably the only one where talent dilution would be noticeable, but with so many colleges throwing the ball there are more pro-capable passers than ever. Second, there are awful teams in every era. I don't think that the current Jaguars are appreciably worse relative to the rest of the league than other 1- or 2-win teams throughout history.

The only downside to a larger league, in my opinion, is that you can't significantly lengthen the schedule, so you naturally arrive at a point where some teams are only matched up once every 6-8 years. It's tough to both maintain rivalries and maintain a cohesive league if some teams only play other teams once in a blue moon.

by nat :: Tue, 03/18/2014 - 3:51pm

Talent dilution is real. In 2013, by DYAR and DVOA, Kellen Clemens the 25th best QB in the NFL, putting him at the edge of the bottom quarter. That means that 44% of regular season games feature at least one QB as bad as he is or worse.

Grow the league by four teams and Clemens or someone like him will still be the 25th best QB, because everybody better is already going to be on a roster even if the league doesn't expand. But now 56% of all games have his level of badness or worse at QB.

The same math dooms us to games featuring bad defenses, bad running games, bad receivers, etc. If you find games featuring bottom quarter talent (by today's standards) on either or both sides boring, you really don't want to see the league expand. Because such games will be the majority.

by tuluse :: Tue, 03/18/2014 - 5:15pm

Your numbers don't even account for the fact that more than 32 QBs play in a given year due to injuries, benchings etc.

I think your math is incorrect though, it doesn't account for 2 bad qbs playing each other.

by nat :: Tue, 03/18/2014 - 11:32pm

Well, yes, I worked the numbers using a pool of 32 QBs, which is how many start on any given non-bye week. Then I did it again for a pool of 36 teams. You can factor in bye weeks and teams changing QBs mid season and get different exact numbers. But that doesn't matter in the end, does it? Adding four more teams makes bad QBs appear as starters in more than half of all regular season games.

The chances of two opposing QBs being in the top 24 of a pool of 32 is 24/32 x 23/31= 56%. The other 44% are games with at least one QB not in the top 24 - the Clemens or worse group. Similar math works out to 56% bad games in the larger league. Did you have a different calculation for those two sized pools?

by tuluse :: Wed, 03/19/2014 - 12:33am

I did the math wrong actually, you're right.

by nat :: Wed, 03/19/2014 - 9:11am

No worries. I had originally posted that 25th put Clemens at the edge of the bottom third, not quarter, of the league before fixing it with a quick edit. While the math here isn't hard, it's still easy to slip up and get it wrong.

by Sixknots :: Wed, 03/19/2014 - 1:04am

See...more work for statisticians.

by Steve in WI :: Mon, 03/17/2014 - 7:13pm

My objection to playoff expansion isn't so much the number of teams, since 12/32 is the lowest ratio of any major sport. But given that the (unavoidable) nature of the NFL playoffs is that anything can happen in a single game, I'm not in favor of expanding the playoffs to make it more likely that an inferior team will get lucky and upset a better team who would win a hypothetical best of five or best of seven, if that format was possible for football.

If the NFL wants change, then getting rid of divisions and seeding by record alone would make more sense...it'll never happen, of course. But it's absurd to me that 10 and even 11 win teams are penalized for playing in stacked divisions while 8 or 9 game winners of weak divisions essentially get a free pass.

by Rhombus :: Mon, 03/17/2014 - 7:42pm

"It's absurd to me that 10 and even 11 win teams are penalized for playing in stacked divisions..."

This, to me, is one of the main reasons I'm in favor of expanding to 7-team playoffs. It's almost inevitable that some deserving team is left out because of the divisional setup. Expansion will help solve that problem, and the 7th team can prove they belong in the playoffs by beating a good divisional winner (2nd seed).

by tuluse :: Mon, 03/17/2014 - 9:44pm

I'm pretty sure 10 out of 30 MLB teams is a lower ratio than 12 out of 32 NFL teams. Plus that counts the one game "wildcard" MLB has as full participation in the playoffs, so you could easily argue it's 8/30.

I don't watch hockey, but the NBA post season product is definitely hurt by the presence of downright bad teams making the playoffs.

by Steve in WI :: Tue, 03/18/2014 - 3:06am

True...for some reason, I was thinking 12 for MLB.

Obviously there's a point at which playoff expansion becomes absurd, but I wonder if part of the problem in the NBA goes beyond just the number of teams. It seems like that's the league that features the fewest championship contenders (arguably 3-4 each year), and it's also the most superstar-driven league. I think admitting half of the teams into the playoffs is a bit much regardless, but I feel like a 16-team playoff would be less of a travesty in the NFL (though I still don't want it, obviously).

by Theo :: Mon, 03/17/2014 - 3:20pm

Ah is it that time of the year again?
Next week, the 18 game season is on the calender, the week after it's "moving to LA, leaving a small market" talk.

It's the same every year.

by Deelron :: Mon, 03/17/2014 - 5:01pm

Hopefully, someday they put "making going to the games actually desirable" without answering "larger scoreboards."

by TomKelso :: Mon, 03/17/2014 - 5:50pm

Miss Rick Reilly? Only when I throw at him. One less sportswriter who thinks sentimentality trumps fact is nothing to mourn.

by MJK :: Mon, 03/17/2014 - 11:07pm

Let's see. In 2013, the extra two playoff teams would have been the 10-6 Cardinals (probably deserving) and one of the abysmal 8-8 Jets/Dolphins/Ravens/Steelers. Ugh.

In 2012, the extra teams would have been the 10-6 Bears and the 8-8 Steelers.

In 2011, one of the 8-8 Eagles/Cowboys/Bears/Cardinals, and the 9-7 Titans.

In 2010, one of the 10-6 Giants/Buccaneers, and the 9-7 Chargers.

In 2009, the 9-7 Falcons and one of the 9-7 Steelers/Texans.

Hmmm... So in the last five years, a 14-team playoff would have admitted 8-8 teams in three of them. Not really seeing much value in that. And in every year, it wouldn't have fixed the problem of letting bad teams in while keeping better teams out--in each of these years, a third wildcard would still have left at least one team home who had a better record or who would have owned a tiebreaker over a team that did go, because of the division structure.

So I'm just not seeing any benefit of the added spot (from a fan's perspective...obviously the networks and league like it because they get an extra game's worth of money), and I'm seeing definite downside most years.

I second the idea of just getting rid of seeding and divisions. Or, if that's too bitter a pill (divisions do some good--the engender rivalries), then consider eliminating "conferences". Still have the eight divisions, but pick the four wildcards as the four best remaining teams in the entire league after the division winners are chosen (so, in 2013, the Chargers would have stayed home and the Cardinals would have gone). Further, seed the playoff teams from 1-12 based on wildcard ranking method (don't give special treatment to division winners). Top four seeds get byes, #5 plays #12, #6 plays #11, etc.

by jds :: Tue, 03/18/2014 - 11:42am

MLK, the other added league/teams benefit is that they automatically add games in weeks 17 (and 16, and maybe 15) that now "have playoff importance". The money guys don't give a damn about the adding of a miserable 8-8 team, but they care about selling that miserable 8-8 team's games in the last three weeks of the season as important games.

by justanothersteve :: Tue, 03/18/2014 - 12:20am

I am so looking forward to the first 7-9 team to win the Super Bowl.

by Pied :: Tue, 03/18/2014 - 7:42am

Part of what makes the NFL so exciting from week one is that every single game matters so much. I can't understand the impetus to dilute that.

I mean, how much excitement does basketball generate during either its much less critical regular season or the first round or two of its playoffs?

by dbostedo :: Tue, 03/18/2014 - 12:35pm

I think of it this way... the NFL will make its product worse if it leads to short and long term revenue increases. Adding games adds revenue. And everyone loves the NFL so much right now, that they can probably afford to make the product worse, and not lose any of the current revenue.

So you wind up with more games, that are less meaningful or exciting, but that make more money overall.

I'd guess given enough time, most sports add games/playoff teams until something breaks - either player health/comfort, or revenue.