Let the what-if scenarios roll.
As expected, NFL owners last week voted to expand the playoff field to 14 teams, up from the 12 we’ve seen since 1990, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a pressurized coach or ring-seeking player to moan about it as a bad thing. It’s another layer of hope.
“It’s a good thing,” new Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy told USA TODAY Sports recently. “Makes it more competitive, competing all the way to the last week. I think that’s healthy. I don’t have any problem with that. Having an extra team from each conference in there is good.”
Personally, the football purist in me is not crazy about a diluted playoff field. After 16 regular-season games (17, likely beginning in 2021), we get a pretty good idea of which teams are championship-fit. The 14 playoff slots are just two fewer than we see in the NBA and NHL, leagues in which more than half the teams make the playoffs.
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Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy (Photo: Matthew Emmons, USA TODAY Sports)
I mean, what’s the regular season for anyway? Something about separating the true contenders from the riff-raff, earning home-field advantage and a playoff bye along the way.
Yet I can also understand why a guy like McCarthy or Mike Tomlin or Jon Gruden would be bullish on the increased opportunity to add a playoff star on their résumé, if not getting hot and adding a Lombardi Trophy.
McCarthy knows Cinderella. Well, maybe not personally, but he knows the magic that can happen if you can just get in. He took an injury-ravaged Green Bay Packers team that claimed the last NFC playoff spot on a three-way tie-breaker in 2010, then parlayed that into a Super Bowl XLV crown.
Of course, that’s rare. Those Packers were the last sixth seed to advance to the Super Bowl. But that run said something about getting hot at the right time, peaking at the finish.
“Playoff football is a different level,” said McCarthy, who would have also claimed a playoff berth during his rookie season as Packers coach if there had been a 14-team field in 2006. “To have two more teams in there is great for the fans. It’s been on the docket for some time now. But I was for it years ago, when they first brought it up.”
Imagine what December will be like, with two more playoff slots in the wind … if this coming NFL season goes off as planned.
Uncertainty about the timeline of the pandemic puts just about everything in a “what-if?” state, even though the NFL has declared it intends to have a full season that begins on time, and President Trump seconded that notion during a weekend conference call with commissioners from several major sports operations. Yet if the NFL gets its full season and doesn’t have to majorly adjust, December should be rocking with extra drama for the playoff race.
The bye for the No. 2 seed in each conference goes by the wayside, adding extra incentive to claim the top seed and lone bye. And there’s more TV cash (and other cash) coming into the pot with tripleheaders on back-to-back days of wild-card weekend.
Still, those forthcoming seventh seeds may be largely carrying the banner of parity. The NFL will tell you that of the additional 60 teams since 1990 that would have made the playoffs with a 14-team field, 44 (73.3%) had a winning record. Yeah, but there were a lot of 9-7 finishes in that number; only 10 would-be No. 7 seeds won at least 10 games (including the 2008 Patriots, whom Bill Belichick drove to 11 wins despite losing Tom Brady in Week 1 to a season-ending knee injury). And in addition to a losing team that would have qualified (Dallas, 7-9 in 1990) there were 15 teams (25%) who would have gotten in at 8-8.
That .500 mark is what would have earned the Pittsburgh Steelers a playoff berth last season, as it would have in 2012 and 2013 with a 14-team field.
Over the past decade, no team had near-playoff misses in a “what if?” 14-team field like Pittsburgh, which would have also claimed the final slot in 2018 with a 9-6-1 finish.
Got that? With a 14-team field, the Steelers would head into the 2020 season with a string of 10 consecutive playoff berths. It’s no wonder Steelers GM Kevin Colbert, who helped build a sixth-seeded team in 2005 that won Super Bowl XL, crowed about the merits of the expanded playoffs.
“I am excited about that,” Colbert told team’s website last week. “Not that we want too many teams in the playoffs, but I thought 12 was a little too little. Maybe that 17th game (beginning in 2021) will be influential in who those extra teams will be. The more teams we can have compete for a championship, the better it will be for our game.”
At least better in the sense of keeping “what-if” hope alive.
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