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Ideas on Restructuring the NFL

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NFL: Super Bowl LIV City Views Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL has not realigned since the Houston Texans entered as the 32nd franchise in 2002.

The format the league developed struck a nice balance between geography and preserving existing rivalries. It made no sense for Airzona to be in the NFC East or Carolina to be in the NFC West as they were before the 2002 realignment. The changes placed these teams in divisions that made more logical sense. At the same time the league didn’t go purely on geography. Teams like Dallas, Miami, and Baltimore had heated existing rivalries within their divisions. The league left those teams where they were to preserve those rivalries even if it meant the NFL’s structure didn’t totally align with a map.

The current format still has its flaws. Most notable are the rewards for winning a division. Division champions are automatically granted a home Playoff game. In theory there is an argument for this, but in a format where there are eight divisions with only four teams apiece, it creates the potential for weak division champions to be rewarded. Take last year when the 11-5 Seahawks had to go on the road in the first round of the postseason for a game against the 9-7 NFC East Champion Eagles. The most notorious example came in 2010 when the 11-5 defending Super Bowl Champion Saints had to visit the 7-9 NFC West Champion Seahawks. Seattle won.

The current league scheduling format also leaves something to be desired. NFC and AFC teams meet only once every four years, no matter how good the matchups would be.

I’ve been playing around with ideas for how to improve the league’s format for years. This quiet stretch in the league year seems like as good of a time as any to unveil my ideas.

Conferences

I eliminate the AFC and the NFC. The league will now be structured into four conferences. The goal here is to develop more competitive divisions while preserving and enhancing rivalries. I found the simplest way is to simply combine each current AFC division with its counterpart in the NFC. The East, North, South, and West divisions merge into separate conferences.

East Conference: Buffalo, Dallas, Miami, New England, NY Giants, NY Jets, Philadelphia, Washington

North Conference: Baltimore, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, Minnesota, Pittsburgh

South Conference: Atlanta, Carolina, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Tennessee

West Division: Arizona, Denver, Kansas City, Las Vegas, LA Chargers, LA Rams, San Francisco, Seattle

This preserves all division rivalries. It also will help to grow other rivalries. Now we have the Jets and the Giants in the same conference. So are the Los Angeles teams. Chicago and Cleveland get a chance to create a rivalry like their cities have in other sports. Jacksonville and Tampa Bay create a new Florida rivalry. The list goes on.

By putting eight teams in each conference, it greatly diminishes the odds of a weak 9-7 team finishing first. The first place finisher will likely be a legitimate top team.

Playoffs

The NFL has expanded the Playoffs to 14 teams. How should we determine these teams?

My plan would be to award the four first place finishers a Playoff spot. The top two would get byes to the second round of the Playoffs. For the sake of simplicity, let’s use the final 2019 standings to demonstrate.

Champions

  1. Baltimore 14-2 (North Champion; Bye)
  2. San Francisco 13-3 (West Champion; Bye)
  3. New Orleans 13-3 (South Champion; Playoff Spot)
  4. New England 12-4 (East Champion; Playoff Spot)

Finishing in first place should have some sort of reward, and this system provides it.

The other ten Playoff spots would be given out to the ten non-first place finishers with the best record across the entire league.

  1. Green Bay 13-3
  2. Kansas City 12-4
  3. Seattle 11-5
  4. Houston 10-6
  5. Minnesota 10-6
  6. Buffalo 10-6
  7. Philadelphia 9-7
  8. Tennessee 9-7
  9. LA Rams 9-7
  10. Dallas 8-8

These ten teams along with New Orleans and New England (first place teams that didn’t get a bye) would participate in the first round of the Playoffs.

I have a twist, though. The seeding for the first round would be based purely on record. New England earned a Playoff spot by finishing in first place, but their record was worse than Green Bay’s, and they lost the head to head tiebreaker to Kansas City so they rank below these teams. The seeding for the first round would look like this.

  1. New Orleans 13-3
  2. Green Bay 13-3
  3. Kansas City 12-4
  4. New England 12-4
  5. Seattle 11-5
  6. Houston 10-6
  7. Minnesota 10-6
  8. Buffalo 10-6
  9. Philadelphia 9-7
  10. Tennessee 9-7
  11. LA Rams 9-7
  12. Dallas 8-8

Now comes a twist I’d like to see sports leagues adopt. Instead of the matchups being determined by seeding, the top teams get to pick their opponents.

Under the current format the top seed gets the lowest seed, but I don’t think that’s completely fair. Playoff games are frequently determined by matchups. If your team can’t stop the run and draw an opponent with a dominant rushing attack, you could be doomed. You also might get a dangerous team that suffered injuries early in the season but got hot at the end to sneak into the Playoffs.

In my format the top team (New Orleans) gets to choose any of the eleven teams below as its first round opponent. After the choice is made, the top remaining team gets to choose any remaining team, and so on until the matchups are set.

In this scenario the Saints might want to avoid a talented Dallas team and instead pick an Eagles team decimated by injuries at wide receiver that would have a difficult time trading touchdowns in the Superdome against a prolific offense. Green Bay would be up next and might have confidence in its ability to stifle the Rams. Next up is Kansas City, who might not fear the Cowboys.

Our first round matchups might go:

Philadelphia at New Orleans

LA Rams at Green Bay

Dallas at Kansas City

Tennessee at New England

Buffalo at Seattle

Minnesota at Houston

Let’s say five of the six home teams win. Only New England is upset by the Titans. We then reseed for the second round with the six winners joined by the two teams that earned byes. They get ranked by record.

  1. Baltimore 14-2
  2. San Francisco 13-3
  3. New Orleans 13-3
  4. Green Bay 13-3
  5. Kansas City 12-4
  6. Seattle 11-5
  7. Houston 10-6
  8. Tennessee 9-7

We have the same format as the first round. For some reason the Ravens might have a bad feeling about how they match up with Tennessee and opt instead to play Houston. The Niners would take the matchup against the Titans. The Saints might prefer Seattle to their other three options, which would leave the Chiefs to visit the Packers.

We might expect Baltimore, San Francisco, and New Orleans to hold serve at home while the Chiefs go into Lambeau Field to upset the Packers.

Heading into the league semifinals, the top seeded Ravens would choose their opponent from the remaining three teams, while the other two would form the second matchup.

To me this postseason format seems much fairer than what we have currently. It comes with the side benefit of allowing any potential Super Bowl matchup. In the right year, the big game could be a classic rivalry like Packers-Bears, Ravens-Steelers, or Jets-Patriots.

Scheduling

We will go with the seventeen game schedule the league will soon implement.

Conference Opponents (10 games)

The teams that finished in the top four in the conference the previous year play twice against the other top four teams and have one game apiece against the bottom four.

Meanwhile the bottom four teams play each other twice apiece and have one game against each of the top four,

For example this is what the 2019 East Conference standings would have looked like.

  1. New England 12-4
  2. Buffalo 10-6
  3. Philadelphia 9-7
  4. Dallas 8-8
  5. NY Jets 7-9
  6. Miami 5-11
  7. NY Giants 4-12
  8. Washington 3-13

In this case, the Patriots would get two games apiece against the Bills, Eagles, and Cowboys who also finished in the top four. They would play one game against each of the Jets, Dolphins, Giants, and Redskins.

The Jets would face Miami, Washington, and the Giants twice since these are the teams that finished in the bottom four of the conference with them. They would play New England, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Dallas once.

It’s important to keep rivalries like Philadelphia and Washington going, but do they really need to play twice until Washington starts building a better team?

Out of Conference Opponents (6 games)

This one is simple. The teams that finished in first and second place in each conference the previous year play the six teams that finished first and second in the other three conferences the year before.

The same goes for third and fourth place teams. Then fifth and sixth place. Then seventh and eighth place.

This creates more compelling matchups. We would get a Baltimore-San Francisco game in 2020 instead of the Baltimore-NY Giants game we actually have to watch.

Game Seventeen (1 game)

This game would be for the fans. The league would use this game to create matchups fans want to see. It would include geographic rivalries where the teams aren’t put into the same conference by our realignment (Eagles-Steelers), (Cowboys-Texans), (Ravens-Redskins), etc.

It would be used to schedule other compelling matchups like a Tampa Bay at New England game that would be Tom Brady’s return to Foxborough.

These games would be scheduled for a week in December to create intensity.

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I think this format strikes a balance of maintaining and nurturing rivalries, creating a more compelling schedule for fans, and eliminating some of the unfair parts of the current Playoff system.

What do you think?