I tend to feel strongly about American sports, and mostly in regards to how their capitalist owners have royally screwed them up. It’s mostly American’s Final Jeopardy syndrome, this dramatic need to give everyone a chance until the very end by devaluing the regular season and putting it all on the playoffs.
For some context, last year the playoffs were expanded to include 14 out of the 32 teams. That means that even if you have a very mediocre season, you’ve still got a great shot at winning it all since almost half of the teams get a crack at the Super Bowl! That means you can play 17 relatively meaningless games all season, all for the chance to lose 1 playoff game in the last second and in some cases purely because of a coin flip.
As I’ve done with other sports, I’ve restructured the NFL’s season and playoffs to fix these issues and improve the whole experience for the fans and the players. I invent board games for a living, so tinkering with rules and structures to generate some excitement is kind of what I do. Here goes!
There are currently 32 teams in the NFL. I propose that we do the following:
1. Split the League into two Leagues
The Major League would consist of 20 teams and the Minor League with 12 teams. Conferences (currently the AFC and NFC) and Divisions would be eliminated.
2. The Season
Recently the NFL shifted to 17 games instead of 16 during the regular season, (which is obviously a money grab by the owners that’s tarnishing the league’s seasonal record books) so while we’re at it let’s go ahead and change that back to 16. In place of that extra game teams will get an extra bye (for a total of 2 byes per season), so that instead of just talking about player health, the owners can actually give players double the rest and get the best players out on the field more often. For the sake of simplicity I’ll just refer to weeks 1-16, in reference to the actual games teams are playing.
During the season teams in the Major League (the top league with 20 teams) will play 16 other teams from within the Major League, with 8 home games and 8 away games. Schedules will be randomly generated. So essentially within the Major League your team will be playing every other team except for 3 of them.
In the Minor League (the lower league with 12 teams), each team will play each other team in the Minor League at least once, and play 4 other teams twice, which takes them through week 15 (more on what they do in week 16 below).
3. The Minor League “Mini Playoff”
In week 16 of the Minor League the games will reflect the current standings as follows:
4 at 1 (Mini Playoff)
3 at 2 (Mini Playoff)
8 at 5 (Promotion Play-in)
7 at 6 (Promotion Play-in)
12 at 9
11 at 10
In the week following the end of the regular season all teams will have a Bye while the two winners from the Mini Playoff will play each other. The one winning team of the mini playoff gets to join the big boys (the Major League) in the actual playoffs! (More on that below)
The two winners of the Promotion Play-in Games get Promoted to the Major League for next season. (More on that below)
4. Relegation / Promotion
At the end of the season the teams from the Major League that finished in the bottom 6 of the regular season standings are “relegated” to the Minor League for the next season. So basically within the Major League the best 5 teams make the playoffs (more on the playoffs below), the middle 9 don’t make the playoffs but also get to stay in the Major League, and the bottom 6 are penalized for a poor season by being put in the Minor League.
In the Minor League the 4 teams from the Mini Playoff (aka the top 4 seeds) are “Promoted” to the Major League for next season, along with the 2 winners from the “Promotion Play-in” games from Week 16. The bottom 4 teams remain in the Minor League for next season.
5. The Playoffs
At the end of the season the 1 “Mini Playoff” winning team from the 12 Minor League teams joins the top 5 teams with the best regular season records from the 20 Major League teams for the playoffs! The players on those 6 teams earn bonuses, because 6 out of 32 teams is rare air, (unlike most American sports which now let more than half of their teams, often some with losing records, into the playoffs!). The team that joined from the Minor League’s Mini Playoff will be considered as the 6 seed.
The playoffs will happen over the course of 5 weeks and in weeks 1-3 each team is guaranteed to play 3 games. As you can see below, the 1 seed will get three home games, the 2-3 seeds get two home games, the 4-5 seeds get one home game, and the 6 seed gets zero home games. Essentially the 1-3 seeds all play each of the 4-6 seeds.
6 at 1
5 at 2
4 at 3
5 at 1
2 at 4
6 at 3
4 at 1
6 at 2
3 at 5
In Week 4 of the playoffs, the two teams with the 3rd and 4th best records in the playoffs play in a 3rd place game (cash bonus and a 3rd place trophy to the winning players and coaches).
In Week 5 the two teams with the 1st and 2nd best records in the playoffs play in the Super Bowl! (Cash bonus to each team, 2nd place trophy to the losing team, with a larger bonus + rings and the Lombardi trophy for the Super Bowl winners)
6. Point Differential for all tie-breaks
In all cases of ties of win/loss records in the regular season and playoff standings, point differential is used for the tie-break. So if you beat a team by 50 points, your differential is +50. If the next week you lose by 10, your total differential is +40.
Also, during the regular season games can end in ties at the end of regulation. There’s nothing wrong with ties if teams have played 60 minutes and end with identical scores! It makes the standings and the strategy much more interesting.
The only time that overtime would be necessary would be in the 3v4 game and in the Super Bowl. For that overtime, two 3 minute halves are played, with each team receiving a kick at the start of each half. No sudden death, meaning that the team that wins the coin flip isn’t going to have a nearly 90% chance of winning. And these days, 3 minutes is plenty of time to go win yourself the game. Just ask Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen.
7. Emphasis on “glory”, trophies, cash for the whole podium and for playoff teams.
It bothers me that teams that have been really good but never won it are considered failures. In the new system they would be celebrated for compiling impressive seasons that ended in playoff berths or finishes on the podium in 2nd or 3rd. Cash would be given to those final 6 teams and trophies to the final 3. Basically, there would be more to celebrate. Teams that made the playoffs (only 6 out of 32!) could hang a banner in their stadium showing that they did so. Teams that finished 2nd or 3rd, could hang a banner and house a trophy showing that they had a pretty dang good season that year. That QB “who could never win the big game” but still got to the playoffs and the podium 6 or 7 times wouldn’t be seen as a failure, but rather as someone who beat out most of the teams for most of their career. There would be a lot more to celebrate.
As discussed in point 5, playoff teams are each guaranteed to play 3 games. So a fluke loss and the accompanying lifetime of a dirty taste in the mouths of its fans doesn’t need to be the end.
8. Legacy Trophies
I would also like to incorporate a new type of trophy that I’ll refer to as Legacy Trophies. Each year the 32 teams would be ranked 1-32 based on their final regular season standings (Major League 1-20, Minor League 21-32). Rankings from each team’s past years would be added together and totaled. The team with the lowest score (meaning they placed cumulatively best in the standings) over a certain number of years would get to house a legacy trophy at their stadium. There would be four such trophies, one for the past 5 seasons, 10 seasons, 20 seasons, and 40 seasons.
So essentially if your team has been objectively best over the past 5 years, you get a Trophy to show to the world that you’ve been the hottest team. You get your team name engraved on it + the years that you held it, similar to what is done with the Stanley Cup. If you possess the 10 year Trophy you’re showing that you’ve built somewhat of a dynasty. And so on with the impressive 20 year and 40 year trophies.
Again this is a way to have more celebration in the league for teams that have played the best. And again it’s a way to value every game of the regular season.
9. The Draft
Finally, the draft. “Tanking” may be the dumbest thing that exists in professional sports. Why, WHY are we incentivizing bad teams to be even worse. Why WHY are there always reports of coaches receiving bonuses for each loss towards the end of the season. We’re done with that. In the new system, the first draft is done completely by lottery, and then from there it’s on a rotation so that each of the 32 teams will get the 1st pick once every 32 years. Your picks would snake through the rounds, and each year your first pick would jump from the top half to the bottom half. So for example in year one a team might have the 1st and 64th picks, and the next year they would have the 32nd and 33rd picks. The next year they would have the 16th and 49th picks and the year after that the 17th and 48th picks. Etc.
It’s that easy! Teams don’t have to tank anymore! And trades would be less of a gamble since you’d know exactly what pick you were receiving or giving away.
Reasons Why I love this system
I can’t stop daydreaming about this system, and here’s why.
There are battles all over the league and all over the standings.
Among the top 20 Major League teams there’s a fight for the 1 seed (since you’ll get 3 home games in the playoffs), there’s a fight for the 3 seed (since you get to play seeds 4-6 in the playoffs instead of 1-3), there’s a fight for the 5 seed (since you make the playoffs), and there’s a fight for the 14 seed (since you get to stay in the Major League).
Among the lower 12 teams there’s a battle at the 2 seed (since you get to host your mini-playoff game), a battle at the 4 seed (since you make the mini-playoff and get promoted), a battle at the 6 seed (since you get to host the promotion play-in), and a battle at the 8 seed (since you make it into a promotion play-in game).
Can you imagine the excitement no matter how your team is doing! Virtually every team will be fighting for something relevant right until the end of the season! And this is not to mention that each team’s record will count towards the Legacy Trophies described above. Every win will be important for the long term glory of your franchise since the result of each game will factor into those Legacy Trophies for the next 5, 10, 20, and 40 years.
The Minor League might be the most exciting thing around
Life doesn’t have to be bad for fanbases with teams in the lower Minor League. It’s a madhouse and it’s exciting the whole way! In many ways it resembles the current state of the NFL with so many teams making the Mini Playoff and the Promotion Play-in, so your team will never really be out of the picture. If your team is in the top 4 out of 12 they have a chance to go to the Super Bowl! And if your team is in the 5-8 spots they have a chance to make it back to the Major League! With this new system the Playoffs come early for everyone since week 16 will be a Minor League madhouse with exciting Playoff and Play-in Games, and the Bye Week following the season will be a “mini Super Bowl” as the two Mini-Playoff teams battle it out for a spot in the playoffs.
Another positive of the current Minor League set up is that adding up to 8 more teams is no trouble at all. The Minor League simply expands to up to 20 teams, and nothing else needs to adjust.
More to talk about
By using points differential for the tiebreak and making every game of the regular season matter (for playoffs, for placement, for relegation-avoidance, for promotion, for legacy trophies), sports programs and podcasters and statisticians will have so much to talk about! Think of all the scenarios and what-ifs. “Team A must win by 13 points!” “Team B just needs a tie!” “Team C must destroy their remaining opponents if they want a chance to stay in the Major League”
And the fact that games can end in ties at the end of regulation is a beautiful thing. Ties won’t be a rare gimmick as they are now, but something that happens often and is watched and relevant. If your team is down by 3 with two seconds left on the 20 yard line, what do you do? Do you take the easy tie, or do you throw it into the end zone? These decisions will have huge consequences and will have to be made with the context of your current standings in mind.
Fewer Bad Tastes in our mouths
A fact of the current playoffs is that most fanbases will leave the season with a bad taste in their mouth. That’s because more than ever, games come down to the final possession. That one hail mary or that one 50-yard field goal is dashing fanbase hearts more than ever. Sure it’s exciting, and those moments will definitely still exist (during the season and the playoffs since important games will happen weekly), but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to take the luck out of it just a little bit.
In the new playoff system every team is guaranteed 3 games. So if in week 1 you lose by a point from an unlucky bounce, you can still come back in week 2 and 3, ramp up your points differential by crushing your opponents, and make it into the Super Bowl. You have 3 games to prove that you’re one of the two best teams, instead of only 1 where a coin toss or a bad call ends up costing you your entire season. There’s a brief chance of redemption and a chance at some justice! Bad tastes depart.
More to celebrate
When you think of the Bills from a few decades ago, what do you think of? 4 Super Bowl losses. Losers. When you think of teams that have been pretty good the last 10 years or so but haven’t quite sealed the deal with a Super Bowl (Chargers, Falcons, Cowboys, etc) what do you think of? Losers. When you think of some of the greatest QBs but realize that many haven’t won the big game (Dan Marino, Philip Rivers) or some have only won it once (Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees) or even only twice (Peyton Manning), what do you think of? Losers. In the current system, literally everyone except Tom Brady and the most recent 2 or 3 Super Bowl Champions is a loser. It doesn’t have to be like that, because these great players and great teams are not losers!
By celebrating the 6 playoff teams, and by celebrating a podium finish for teams 2 & 3, and by celebrating housing the 5-year, 10-year-, 20-year, and 40-year legacy trophies there is just a whole lot more to celebrate! And it’s not like we’re giving out participation trophies; these are real things to celebrate. Just think about how we would view the “failure” players and teams of the past differently if we looked at their whole trophy case instead of just at the lack of Lombardis. The new system would make fan bases all over the place feel a lot prouder and a lot less defeated. Think about it- right now if a different team won the Super Bowl every year that means that your team would only win the Super Bowl once every 32 years. Only 2-3 times in your lifetime. What is wrong with having a few more bright spots to look back on after a lifetime of screaming your lungs out?
That’s it, I’ve said my piece.
Will anything I’ve mentioned ever happen? 99% no. But I’ll keep holding out hope, because this is an NFL format where I wouldn’t miss a game.
ONE YEAR LATER
Ok, after a year of stewing on my post…I have more to say.
Most of what I have written above, especially regarding the season, the draft, ties, legacy trophies, etc still stands. But assuming the NFL doesn’t go for the relegation system above, I have a new idea for the post season.
1. One league. No relegation. At the end of the season the top 8 teams in the league go to the playoffs and play a round robin.
Seeds 1, 4, 5, and 8 will form one round robin pool. Seeds 2, 3, 6, and 7 will form the other pool. Each team will play each other team in its pool over the course of three weeks, with the higher seed always hosting. After those three weeks, the team with the most wins (then most ties if there are two times tied for wins, then points differential) in each pool will play each other in the Super Bowl two weeks later. The #2 teams in each pool will play each other for the 3rd place trophy the week before the Super Bowl.
2. Teams seeded 9-24 play in a 16-team tournament for the “Nameth Trophy”
Or call the Trophy whatever you want. Basically this is for fun and a consolation for being middle of the pack, but not the lowest of the pack. Higher seeds host the games, and it’s standard seeding, so the #9 would host #24, #10 would host #23 etc. Advancing further into each round gives the players on the teams a substantial $ bonus. This tournament would also determine the final seeding for the year, which comes into play for the legacy trophies mentioned above. Imagine if your team missed out on the playoffs but then finished the season with a glorious run in this tournament! It would be so much fun!
3. Teams seeded 25-32 go home!
And as mentioned above, no rewards for tanking. The draft rotates so each team gets the #1 pick every 32 years and snakes between rounds.
Ok I’m done for now. Make it happen Goodell!