Realigning the NFL

I’ll begin my tenure at GridFe with a relatively light-hearted topic, but it’s a topic that I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about: NFL division alignments and schedules. I am not a fan of the current setup consisting of eight divisions of four teams each. With so few teams in each division, it drastically increases the likelihood of imbalance, and as we’ve witnessed a few times, that imbalance can be extreme. I’m appalled at the yearly occurrence of a mediocre team receiving a free pass into the playoffs (and hosting a game!) simply because they are lucky enough to be arbitrarily grouped with three teams even worse than them. I won’t complain about something unless I have a solution to propose, and regarding this issue, I have two potential fixes in mind.

Solution #1: Switch from 8×4 to 4×8

If we must have divisions in the NFL, my preference is to split the teams into four groups of eight. By doubling the number of teams in each division, we would all but eliminate the cheap division winner tripping into an undeserved playoff berth. The first step, which is sure to draw the ire of traditionalists, is to scrap the conferences altogether. Back in the 1970’s, when the NFL-AFL merger was still fresh in everyone’s mind, the conferences actually meant something. But now, 46 years, the conferences are nothing more than outdated, arbitrary designations. I’m placing teams into proposed divisions based entirely on geography, with the aim of divisions that match common sense and minimize travel distance.

EAST

  • Bills
  • Patriots
  • Jets
  • Giants
  • Eagles
  • Redskins
  • Ravens
  • Panthers

NORTH

  • Packers
  • Vikings
  • Lions
  • Bears
  • Browns
  • Bengals
  • Steelers
  • Colts

SOUTH

  • Cowboys
  • Texans
  • Saints
  • Titans
  • Falcons
  • Dolphins
  • Buccaneers
  • Jaguars

WEST

  • Seahawks
  • 49ers
  • Cardinals
  • Rams
  • Chargers
  • Raiders
  • Broncos
  • Chiefs

Sorry Cowboys, Dallas isn’t on the east coast, so you no longer get to be part of the East Division. For the other 31 teams, I don’t see any real issues with this alignment. The majority of division rivalries are preserved and teams are guaranteed to play at least half of their games within their own region of the country. The most significant change occurs with the scheduling of division games; instead of home-and-home matchups with each divisional opponent, teams will play a single game against each of their division foes, plus a second game vs. one of their rivals based on the previous year’s standings (1 vs. 2, 3 vs. 4, 5 vs. 6, 7 vs. 8). The site of each division matchup will alternate from one season to the next. The remaining eight games on the schedule will consist of four games each against teams from two of the other three divisions, based on a yet to be determined formula accounting for previous year’s records. The divisions faced will rotate on a yearly basis in a similar fashion to the current setup. I think 12 playoff teams is the perfect number, so the playoff format will remain unchanged. The four division winners will be seeded #1-4 and the eight wild card spots determined by record, regardless of division, with ties broken by SRS.

 

Solution #2: College hybrid schedule

One of the things I like about college football is the allowance of clubs to choose their non-conference opponents. Why not try this in the NFL? At first blush this may sound preposterous, but hear me out. My proposal is to let each franchise choose up to eight of their opponents in advance the upcoming season. In my opinion, division rivalries are often overblown in the NFL, and these “rivalry” games can be downright tedious when both clubs are struggling. Instead of force feeding us the same tired matchups twice per year, I’d rather let the franchises decide who their real rivals are. In this proposed plan, each club must submit a list of matchups they desire for the upcoming season by February 15. If two clubs list one another for a desired matchup, then said matchup is guaranteed to appear on both clubs’ schedules. If the desire for a given matchup is not reciprocated by the opponent, it will not be locked in to the schedule. The only rule in selecting desired matchups is a limit of two games per season against any given opponent. Clubs are permitted to select less than eight of their opponents, all the way down to not selecting any.

The college scheduling structure has one huge flaw – it allows powerful schools to play games against laughably weak competition and rack up cheap wins in the process. My NFL proposal has a correction for this issue. The 16 game schedule for each club must have a strength of schedule between .480 and .520, based on previous year records. This is accomplished by using a scheduling algorithm that chooses random opponents for each club beyond the matchups that they’ve pre-selected. If a club loads their schedule with eight cupcake opponents, the algorithm will balance that out with eight difficult matchups to ensure a SOS between .480 and .520. There will be no divisions or conferences, but each club will be guaranteed a matchup with every club in the league within a span of four seasons. The randomized schedule will also guarantee that there won’t be repeat matchups in a given season, outside of any double matchups that have been pre-selected. The playoff format will be a modified version of the existing one, with the top four overall records earning byes and the best remaining eight records earning wild card berths. All ties will be broken by SRS.

If the NFL can milk a two hour TV special out of the current schedule release, imagine the hype and anticipation that would be generated with my proposed system. Fans would be on the edge of their seats waiting to see who their favorite team chose to play in the upcoming season. There would be second guessing, excessive analyzing, and social media would explode. Of course for the sake of drama, the NFL would also reveal the matchups that were requested by one club but spurned by the other. Imagine the trash talking among fanbases that would follow!

 

Now I want to hear from you. Do you like either of my proposals? Do you think they’re ridiculous and I need to have my head examined? What would your ideal league structure look like?

 

 

 

  • Corbin

    Really cool ideas!

    • Adam

      Thanks!

  • PerfectTrader777

    Tremendous thinking outside the box!
    I like both ideas. However, the 1st one eliminates teams’ ability to shape their team in order to maximize advantages vs the other 3 teams in their division. If their division instead consists of 8 teams, this ability to gain a potential advantage is mostly taken away, as the 7 other division teams are likely to have, on average, a narrower disparity of strengths and weaknesses.

    • Adam

      Thanks, I appreciate the feedback. I hadn’t thought about that issue….do you think the product is better when teams are constructed to handle specific opponents? I can see both sides of that argument, as less familiar opponents force teams to be more creative and diverse with their game planning.

      • PerfectTrader777

        I don’t think the product would get worse, no.
        I do think that the coaches/owners who have been doing this for the past few years might be upset by such a change though and would probably vote against it. I may, however, be overestimating the advantage of such a strategy.

  • Tom

    Adam – I like the first idea, totally sold on realigning the divisions geographically. I see what PerfectTrader is saying below, but I think you’ll still have that impetus to shape your team a certain way: the teams in the North, having to play in the bitter cold in the later months, will shape their teams accordingly; the teams in the West will have strategies built upon playing most of their games in the sun, but still have to gameplan for possible playoff games in the East, etc., etc. I really like it.
    I also like that you’re keeping the current 12-team playoff layout which works well…4 division leaders, 8 Wild Cards, done. Good read, thanks.

    • Adam

      Thanks for stopping by, Tom. This begs the question: How much are rosters actually tailored to their division and weather? We’ve seen plenty of high flying offenses in cold cities, and grind it out defensive teams in warm cities and domes. I’m not a GM (haha I wish) so I don’t know how much consideration they give to this in building their teams.

  • For the college hybrid schedule, how does the NFL determine order of choice? Since record trumps SOS, it’s possible everyone wants to schedule Cleveland and Jacksonville. They obviously can’t be on everyone’s schedule, so who gets the honor?

    • Adam

      Oh I forgot to cover that, thanks for the reminder. I’d give priority to teams with better records from the previous year, basically the opposite of how the waiver wire operates. That would give bad teams incentive to keep trying at the end of the season instead of tanking for draft picks.

  • Swiggy

    While we are thinking outside the box…expansion to 36 teams and move to 6 divisions of six, which brings back more of the feel of the prior 6 divisions of 5 teams. This brings up another interesting questions….which cities would be the best option for expansion (not necessarily most likely), assuming Oakland and SD stay put.

    Vanilla suggestions:
    1) Add another LA team, the market can clearly accommodate two teams
    2) St Louis – just lost a team, mid-sized market (19th largest combined metro area) with decent fan support
    3) Portland – largest market (also rapidly growing) without a team, history of good fan support for soccer/basketball teams
    4) San Antonio – 2nd largest market without a team, growing rapidly, in football rabid state of Texas

    A step outside the box:
    1) Vegas – strong population growth: Cons: Lots of transplants with pre-existing football loyalties
    2) 3rd NYC-area team in Westchester or Fairfield – massive media market (roughly 22 million people) split into three would still be larger than all but 5 or 6 media markets
    3) London – League wants it; large, international city with plenty of expats; Cons – killer travel times (month long road trips), still limited interest in American football across the pond, many US expats have pre-existing fan loyalties

    Further away from Box:
    1) Toronto: Massive market, football reasonably popular; Cons: Would be a huge FU to the CFL & Argonauts
    2) Mexico City: Massive market, football becoming more popular; Cons: Safety, pollution, travel distance…

    • Bryan Frye

      Personally, I’ve been a proponent of something that is never going to happen: getting rid of 8 teams and moving back to three divisions of four teams apiece in both conferences. The hope here is that the reduced league size would prevent the dilution of talent and make for more evenly matched games. The biggest con, to me, would be the fact that half the teams in the league would make the playoffs (unless the format changed).

      This idea would almost certainly lose the NFL money and would, thus, never even be considered.

    • Wolverine

      Would adding a 2nd Chicago team be feasible? Didn’t the Cardinals and Bears share Chicago for a while? And the the city can clearly support two baseball franchises.

      • Swiggy

        Chicago might work. It is the 3rd largest metro area and there is a high interest in pro football. I see two cons. One is that the this is a “Bears town” even moreso I believe than NY is Jets/Gints town. The second is demographics. Chicago and the surrounding area are growing slower than the national average and may not be the best bet to support two teams in say, 2040.

    • Adam

      This is a cool proposal; I’m also a fan of the six division setup. However I’m strongly against another LA team because they’ve proven themselves as fickle NFL fans. Las Vegas appears to be a done deal with the Raiders, and I’m on board with it. Portland or San Antonio would be my first choices for expansion. What do you think about Oklahoma City? They ravenously support the Thunder, so why not an NFL team?

  • vfefrenzy

    I like the idea of realigning the NFL based on geography and have often thought about the best ways to do it. I like your system, but I would propose a change. Instead of forcing an eighth division game, I would have teams play 3 teams from each of the other 3 divisions on a regular rotation. One of the things the NFL’s current scheduling model does well is making sure that fans get to see their team play every other team at least once every four years. With 7 division and 9 rotational games, teams would see every other team at least every 3rd year. This is a flaw of both proposals above, IMO. Scheduling based on prior year records or team choice could easily lead to teams not meeting for a decade.

    • Adam

      My second proposal does ensure that teams will face each other at least once every four years, but I agree with what you’re saying. One of the biggest flaws of the pre-2002 schedule was the possibility of teams going a decade or more without facing each other.

      I’m too OCD to have an odd number of division games, but perhaps the non-division rotation could be alerted to guarantee some frequency of each matchup.

      • Tom

        I’m with you on the odd-numbered division games…that’s a no-no, the OCD demands it to be even.

  • I think we should talk about this as if they are going to push the schedule to 18 games. No one but the league wants it, but it seems like an inevitability nonetheless.

    • Adam

      I’m not convinced 18 games is inevitable. I think the NFL uses it as a bargaining chip to hang over the players’ heads during CBA negotiations. My sense is that the players union will concede just about anything to avoid the 18 game schedule. For the sake of the game, I hope so.

  • Four Touchdowns

    I like the first option better, though there is some appeal in letting the teams choose their opponents for the drama contained — but it feels too different and weird to me since I don’t follow college football.

    I would actually be fine with the current system with the change that a division winner is guaranteed nothing more than a playoff spot while the team records determine homefield advantage.

  • Robert Powers

    The first option is really good. I would be all for current divisional set up but using logistics/geography as the sole basis for alignment. the most important upgrade to me is 12 team seeding based on record and reseeding every round so a wild card has to play the toughest route to the super bowl, additionally teams in the same division should not have to play again till unavoidable. With the 12 team reseeding two teams from the same conference or division have the chance to play in the super bowl AKA Patriots/Colts when they were clearly the best two teams in the league. Is there a way to petition the league for such changes. It is high time for Re-Alignment or actually I think it is just proper Alignment.