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 But now, 46 years, the conferences are nothing more than outdated, arbitrary designations.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.
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?