September 20, 2001

Putting Together the Pieces of the Rescheduled NFL Playoffs

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The tragic attacks of Sept. 11 caused America to grind to a near halt in daily life for nearly a week. The sports world, like countless other professions, was affected. Cancellations and postponements both here in Ithaca and around the world led to silent fields. It was the first time ever that the National Football League called off its scheduled games for a non-labor-related reason.

This created a problem for the decision-makers of the NFL. How should the league go about restructuring the regular season and the playoffs? There were at least seven options that were floated around between commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the owners. Some have already been rejected, some should have been, but here they are, from worst to best.

7. “Superbowl Tournament.” This plan was actually used back in 1982, when a strike shortened the regular season. Reminiscent of a video game, the Tournament actually increases the number of teams in the postseason from 12 to 16. The teams would then play a single elimination tournament, with the finals being the Superbowl. This likely won’t happen, because the NFL would need an extra week of playoff time to get all the necessary games in.

6. “Stuff yourself with turkey and football.” This plan would move all Week 12 games up from Nov. 25-26 to Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 22. The postponed Week 2 games would then be played on Tuesday, Nov. 27. Week 13 would continue as planned the following weekend. New Orleans brought up this option. The Saints, like a lot of teams this year, will probably be relying on a wild-card entry into the postseason. This plan was essentially shot down when the makeup games were scheduled during what originally was wild-card weekend, Jan. 5-6.

5. “Flutie gets an extra game.” The 15-game regular season was very seriously considered, but there were a few problems with the idea which ultimately led to its being nixed. First, the Chargers would have ended up playing one more game than the rest of the league thanks to their scheduled bye in Week 2. Second, some teams would lose a home game, and therefore, precious gate revenue. And third, a full season allows players and teams to chase records, a point that was illustrated by Major League Baseball when it decided to keep a full 162-game schedule.

4. “Keep the playoff teams busy.” OK, so this one is actually being called the “Shanahan Plan,” after its proponent, Denver head coach Mike Shanahan. This one is still being considered, and it’s not so bad. It would have the Week 2 games made up on Jan. 5-6, with the playoff contenders playing their games on Saturday. The wild-card round would be played on Wednesday, Jan. 9, and then the divisional round would take place as previously scheduled, on Jan. 12-13.

3. “MLB-style playoffs.” If #2 on the list won’t happen, this is the best option. Eliminate the wild-card round of the playoffs and only allow the division champs and one wild-card team from each conference into the postseason. The detractors of this plan say that good teams will be cheated out of a playoff spot. Then again, no team entering the playoffs as a No. 5 or No. 6 wild-card ever won the Super Bowl.

2. “Big Easy two-fer.” This one still could happen, but don’t bet on it. The usual 12-team playoffs would happen, with each round pushed back a week. The conference championships would be played in New Orleans as a doubleheader on Jan. 27, what is currently scheduled as Superbowl Sunday. The Superbowl then gets played on Sunday, Feb. 3 in a different city, with the promise that New Orleans gets another Superbowl soon to make up for losing this one.

1. “Stubborn car dealers.” The reason the Superbowl can’t be played in New Orleans a week later than planned is because the National Automobile Dealers Association has its convention in the Superdome that weekend. The NFL asked the NADA to swap weekends, but because travel plans have been made by many convention attendees, this option isn’t going to happen.

The owners have been batting this issue back and forth since last week’s games were called off. The problem is, you can’t have your 16-game schedule and your 12-team playoffs, too, unless you overwork the athletes or give New Orleans the cold shoulder. The main sticking point here is the loss of the two wild-card slots in each conference. And so, in an effort to make the suits of the NFL happy, here is my solution to the problem:

Forget about the divisions. They’re going to get shuffled around next year anyway. Take the top four teams from each conference and stick them in the playoffs. This will ease griping about divisional runner-ups not making the playoffs and will ensure that the top teams from each conference in the regular season reach the “second season.” Yes, some teams have easier schedules, but that is largely based on their finish last season anyway. The bad teams have easier schedules, but they’re still bad and probably won’t crack the top four in the conference.

Ultimately, there’s no way to please everybody. But the NFL first did the right thing in not playing last weekend. It then made another good move by ensuring a full regular season. Now the ball is in the league’s court again with regard to postseason structure. Since the playoffs are grueling enough as it is, squeezing an extra round of games into the allotted time will dilute the playoff teams with backups when the stars get hurt. An eight-team playoff system is the way to go, and if the NFL disregards the divisions, then the most deserving teams will be the ones you will be watching come late January.

Archived article by Alex Fineman