Playoff format is matter of integrity

There has been a renewed call for expanding the number of teams that make the postseason. That's a bad idea, writes John Clayton.

Originally Published: December 30, 2005
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Chiefs president Carl Peterson got a lot of people talking this week with the renewal of his push to expand the playoffs from 12 teams to 14.

Although I'm not in favor of expanding the playoffs until the NFC gets better, I applaud Peterson for his persistence. It's good to revisit the playoff format every two years, and Peterson will be lobbying hard to add two playoffs teams when he gets to the owners' meeting in March.

When the NFL went to the eight-team, four-division format in 2002, it said it would consider expanding the playoffs after a couple of years. The worry is always turning the playoffs into mediocrity. Last year, it would have been embarrassing to have a seven-team conference playoff format. The Rams and Vikings made it under the current format with 8-8 records.

The NFL doesn't want to be like college football, where a 6-6 record can earn a trip to a bowl game. Unlike college football, the NFL has a playoff format. It's not a league trying to reward the average.

But something is changing that merits discussion. Eleven teams already have 10 wins. This weekend, the Chiefs, Cowboys, Chargers and Redskins could also join the 10-victory plateau, setting an NFL record with 15 10-win teams. Three 10-win teams would be out of the playoffs if that happens. The previous record since 1978 is 13 in 2003.

The NFL went to the 12-team format in 1990. That was when there were three divisions in each conference and three wild cards. In 2002, the adjustment was made to give playoff berths to four division winners and award only two wild cards per conference.

Since 1990, only three 10-6 teams haven't made the playoffs. Two came from 1991 -- the Eagles and the 49ers. The 2003 Dolphins failed to make it in the tough AFC East. Now, three teams could miss the playoffs with 10-6 season. Something's up.

It's real simple to see what's going on. The league of parity has fallen into a league of haves and have-nots because of the importance of the quarterback position. Even though the AFC will barely win the interconference battle against the NFC this year -- the AFC leads 32-29 -- the AFC has the better quarterbacks. Nine of the top 11 quarterbacks are in the AFC, and that's an alarming stat.

The conference with the better quarterback play offers stability. There's an order to the AFC. If the Steelers beat the Lions as expected Sunday, four AFC teams will be making a return trip to the playoffs. The two new additions -- Jacksonville and Cincinnati -- are partially results of the QB play of Byron Leftwich and Carson Palmer.

The NFC is in its usual state of confusion because of inconsistent quarterback play. The Seahawks are the only repeating playoff team, and that's because Matt Hasselbeck has outdistanced everyone as the conference's best quarterback.

Remember the argument last week about Michael Vick making the Pro Bowl? Who was going to beat him out? Drew Bledsoe? Brad Johnson? Eli Manning?

In the name of purity, I'd be against expanding the playoffs until the NFC catches up in the quarterback arms race. That probably isn't going to happen in the next couple of years because there aren't enough quarterbacks being thrown into the pool of talent. The Saints may get USC's Matt Leinart. Maybe an NFC team will trade for either Drew Brees or Philip Rivers. Texas' Vince Young could help someone if he turns pro.

That's why Peterson's discussion about playoff expansion goes beyond the purity issue. The have-not scenario isn't going away. There could be as many as 14 10-loss teams this season (there are 12 already). That number has been pretty consistent for three years, making it a trend. There were 13 teams with double-digit losses in 2003 and 12 last year. A franchise without a good quarterback has no hope this day and age, so expect 12 to 14 double-digit losing teams next year.

That said, I reserve the right to change my stance on the playoffs depending on how the collective-bargaining situation shakes out. If the league doesn't strike a collective-bargaining extension by the end of January, the NFL would be the first sport to lose the salary cap.

For that reason alone, I'd support a playoff expansion to 14. If the NFL is stupid enough to lose the salary cap, the list of have-nots would only grow. Teams with the big revenues would limit the chances of small-revenue teams being consistent playoff contenders. If the low-revenue teams struggle competing, they will be doomed to two- and three-year cycles of 10-or-more loss seasons.

Plus, the cost of drafting in the top five would have even more of a negative impact on the low-revenue teams. With no defined rookie pay scale, the cost of signing bonuses would eat up too much of a team's budget. Maybe that means trading the top picks, but that could only benefit the richer teams. The result is a less competitive league.

Since the salary cap was implemented in 1992, 31 of the 32 franchises have made the playoffs. The only non-playoff team is the newest team, the 4-year-old Houston Texans.

The salary cap may have shortened dynasties, but it's spread the wealth for playoff excitement. Small-revenue teams have prospered. The Packers have had 10 playoff trips in the salary-cap era. The Vikings have done it eight times despite the low revenue of the Metrodome. The Colts have made eight playoff trips in the salary-cap era. That's as many as the Cowboys, Dolphins, Broncos, Patriots and Eagles.

Yet, even in the salary-cap era, 14 teams could end up with 10 losses this season. Imagine how bad the gap will be if teams have $40 to $50 million more to spend on payroll than other teams.

Under a 12-team playoff system in less-competitive times, the chances are greater that 10- and maybe even 11-win teams miss the playoffs. The only 11-win team to miss the playoffs was the 1985 Denver Broncos. That was in a non-salary-cap time.

If the NFL doesn't get a collective bargaining agreement by the Super Bowl, it should expand the playoffs to 14 teams because more rich and powerful teams will be left out of the playoffs. Next year could be the last year of the salary cap. An uncapped year is set for 2007, and a possible labor strike or lockout exists in 2008.

March will be the last chance to negotiate a deal with the union to expand the playoffs while the union and the owners are still talking.

The hope is a collective bargaining agreement can get done soon. It's been the NFL's history to get deals done on deadlines. When talks sound as though they are at their most hopeless levels, something gets done. It's been NFL tradition for decades.

Still, the vibes on extending the CBA don't sound promising. It would be the NFL's mistake and the NFL's loss. Players won free agency on the last labor battle. If the NFL wants to give them free agency and no cap, that's one stupid business plan.

But let's get back to the playoffs. Peterson is being a good visionary in thinking about expanding the playoffs. Another idea that should be tossed around is seeding the playoffs by victories instead of giving the division winners the top four seeds. Most of this weekend's games are meaningless because teams that have locked up home games for the playoffs will rest their key players .

If the Patriots had to worry about playing in Jacksonville instead of opening the playoffs at home against the Jaguars, they might have a big sense of panic heading into this weekend's game against the Dolphins. Too many of this weekend's games are like preseason games.

Peterson opened up a lot of thinking. At a time of uncertain labor peace, it's time to look ahead and at least consider change.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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