Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Rant: sub-.500 playoff teams

A lot of commentators have called for the NFL playoffs to revamp it seeding procedures in which the winner of a weak division is guaranteed a home playoff game despite having an inferior record against a top wild card. This season is an even greater anomaly. It is possible that the 12-4 New Orleans Saints will begin their quest for another Super Bowl on the road against the Seattle Seahawks, who could win their pathetic division with a 7-9 record. What the _____?
Most have suggested that the top 2 division champs should get 1st round byes then seeding for teams 3-6 should be based on record rather than place in the division. For example, an 11-5 team that finishes 2nd in its division would be seeded higher than a divison champ that finished 9-7 or 10-6. I would agree with this change but propose going even farther than that with the reforms. My plan calls for any team with a non-winning record to be declared ineligible for the playoffs even if they finish with the best (least bad) record in their division. A team must be at least 9-7 or I suppose 8-7-1 to qualify for the playoffs as a division champ. If such a team wins a division at 8-8 or worse, a more deserving 3rd wild card gets in provided that their record is better. The current playoff format has produced unfair anomolies in the past.
1985- Cleveland won their division at 8-8 and got in while John Elway and the Broncos were left home at 11-5, the same record as the eventual conference champs.
2008- New England got left at home at 11-5 while San Diego (8-8) hosted Indy (12-4) and won.
Let's take a look at other sports. I don't follow hockey and basketball very much but each league usually allows a couple of sub-.500 playoff teams every year. Most lose the first round but a few have gotten hot when it mattered. The worst example came in the 1990-91 NHL playoffs in which the Minnesota North Stars made the playoffs with a record of 27-39-14 then proceeded to upset 3 consecutive opponents before being beaten by Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup finals 4 games to 2. The NHL saw a team with a winning percentage barely above .400 come within just 2 games of a world championship. That would be like a 6-9-1 team that had no business in the playoffs at all playing in the Super Bowl and keeping the game competitive until the 4th quarter. Eventually, the league expanded and kept the number of playoff teams at 16 so we are unlikely to see a team that bad making the playoffs again. I don't know of any basketball team that made such an improbable playoff run. In football, we've seen two 10-6 Super Bowl champs, two 9-7 Super Bowl participants but no 8-8 team has advanced to a conference championship game. Baseball has had its problems with the playoff format as well. Prior to 1994, only 1 team per division qualified for the playoffs and we often saw 100-62 teams sitting at home while 88-74 teams would win the weaker division.
The worst World Series team remains the '73 Mets at 82-79 who took it to a 7th game before losing to Baltimore. Thus far, there have been no sub-.500 playoff teams in baseball but we've had other close calls. San Diego got in at 82-80 in '05 and the 2 worst World Series champs have been the '87 Twins at 85-77 (only 5th best in the AL) and the '06 Cardinals (83-78). It is entirely possible that we could see a sub-.500 playoff team in the future. Most likely, it would come from the 4 team AL West where in 1994, before the strike, Texas led the division at 52-62. On pace for a record of 74-88, they certainly could have gotten hot in October and won the whole thing. I'd hate to tell a 95 win 3rd place team in the AL East that they have to sit at home because a 79 win team won the AL West. Again, I propose that any non-winning team be disqualified from post-season play in favor of another wild card. I may even set the bar at 86 wins (10 over .500).
Bottom line, I can understand expanding the playoffs because more games mean more revenue and more entertainment for the fans but we need fairer systems that prevent mediocre teams from getting in while leaving good ones at home. Feel free to comment.

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