Moral hazard and the modern playoffs

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 13, 2009



By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts odd man in
 
If it seems odd that two nine-win teams will battle for the NFC title on Sunday, there's a good reason.
 
It is odd – as odd as the number on Donovan McNabb's or Kurt Warner's jersey (that would be 5 or 13, for those of you keeping score at home).
 
In fact, you have to go all the way back to the 1967 NFL championship game – better known as the Ice Bowl – to find a league or conference title game that pitted two nine-win teams. The 9-4-1 Packers hosted the 9-5 Cowboys at frosty Lambeau Field that famous day.
 
But at least those teams had an excuse: they played back in the 14-game era. Given two more games each, it's reasonable to expect that at least one of those teams, and probably both, would have won at least 10 games.
 
So, yes, the Eagles (9-6-1) and Cardinals (9-7) are a pair of rare birds. And no matter what happens on Sunday, the Super Bowl will feature a nine-win team for just the third time in history (the 1967 Packers and 1979 L.A. Rams are the others).  
 
It's a nice a little story for those who enjoy football fairy tales about plucky little teams that threaten to win it all.
 
To the Cold, Hard Football Facts, it's a perversion of the natural order of things and the latest manifestation of a disturbing trend that has come to dominate, and diminish, the playoffs over the past four years. It's a trend that:
  • Calls into question the wisdom of four-team divisions and the realignment of 2002.
  • Calls into question the current playoff structure created by realignment.
  • Diminishes the importance of the brutal 16-game regular season.
  • Virtually destroys what used to be known as home-field "advantage" in the playoffs.
Put most simply, the NFL needs to take steps to create better and more just playoff system. Simply look at the chaos realignment created here in the 2008 NFL postseason:
  • A 12-4 team (Indy) had to go on the road to face an 8-8 team (San Diego).
  • A 9-7 team (Arizona) hosts not one but two playoff games, both of them against teams with better regular-season records.
  • An 11-5 team (New England), which beat 9-7 Arizona by 40 points just a few weeks ago, is forced to sit at home and watch it all unfold on TV, missing the playoffs even though its record equaled or bettered that of three of the four title-game contenders.
  • An 8-8 team (San Diego) reached the playoffs while not one but four teams with better records across the two conferences did not (Dallas, Chicago, N.Y. Jets, New England).
Quite frankly, the widely criticized BCS offers a better system than what the NFL has given us since 2002.
 
To put it most bluntly, the NFL acts as if it could hardly care less about the blood and shattered bodies scattered across pro football arenas for 17 weeks from September to December. 
 
Consider the chaos of the past four years, and the unlikely champions it's yielded:
 
The 2005 Steelers were the first No. 6 seed to win a Super Bowl and the first team to win the Super Bowl without the benefit of a home playoff game. The 2005 Steelers, in other words, were an anomaly by historic standards.
 
The 2006 Colts entered the playoffs with the worst run defense the NFL had seen since the expansion Vikings of 1961 (Indy surrendered an awful 5.33 YPA) and a unit that surrendered 360 points that year. It was the worst defense of any Super Bowl champion. The 2006 Colts, in other words, were an anomaly by historic standards.
 
The 2007 Giants were a 10-6 team that outscored opponents by a mere 22 points. Yet like another No. 6 seed, the Steelers two years earlier, the Giants won three straight road games before winning the Super Bowl. Their +22 scoring differential is the lowest of any Super Bowl champion and only the 2006 Colts (360 points) gave up more points than the Giants (351). The 2007 Giants, in other words, were an anomaly by historic standards.
 
The 2008 Cardinals are the latest Team Nobody Saw Coming – the anomalous Super Bowl contender that not only lost seven games this year, but lost many of them badly. The Cardinals were blown out by 21 points or more four times this year. They scored just one more point than the surrendered (427 to 426) and if they do win Sunday – remember, they get to play at home – they'll easily be the worst team and the worst defensive club that's ever reached a Super Bowl. 
 
If one team upsets the apple cart every so often, rising from the statistical abyss to unexpectedly capture a championship, then you have a nice little story to celebrate for years.
 
But when it happens year after year, it's no longer a nice little story. It's a sign of structural problems within the league and its playoff system in particular.
 
Moral hazard and homefield dis-advantage
Consider what used to be known as homefield "advantage" in the playoffs. From the merger in 1970 through 2001, the last year pre-realignment, home teams posted a winning record in the postseason every year but two (home teams were .500 in 1971 and 1992).
 
Then in 2005, home teams went just 4-6 – the first time visiting teams won more often than they lost. In 2007, home teams went 5-5. And here in 2008, home teams are just 3-5, with the potential for 3-7, which would easily be the worst year ever for home teams in the playoffs. That's three of the worst years ever for home teams in the last four postseasons alone.
  • Home teams went 190-80 (.704) in the playoffs from 1970 through 2001.
  • Home teams have gone 40-28 (.588) in the playoffs since the realignment of 2002.
  • Home teams have gone 20-18 (.526) in the playoffs since 2005.
The trend could not be more obvious: home-field is hardly the advantage it once was.
 
The current system offers what economists and sociologists might call moral hazard: It alternately rewards inferior teams, such as the 8-8 Chargers or 9-7 Cardinals, simply because they were better than three rivals in a weak division, or punishes superior teams, such as the 12-4 Colts, 11-5 Patriots or 9-6-1 Eagles, who had to fight through brutal regular seasons in tougher divisions. That's not a very good system.
 
Don't blame "parity" for the problem
The knee-jerk reaction from pigskin "pundits" is to blame "parity" for recent postseason chaos. But parity is like a youngest child in the seedy underworld of online gridiron analysis: it gets blamed for everything.
 
Parity is not the problem, though.
 
The truth is that there is no more parity in the NFL today than there was 30 or 40 years ago – not in a league which produced the first 16-0 team in history last year, and then handed us the first 0-16 team for an encore this year.
 
That's not parity, unless you define "parity" as huge, gaping chasms between the haves and have-nots of the contemporary NFL. And those chasms have never been deeper and wider.
 
Pittsburgh and New England, for example, have accounted for nine of 18 AFC title-game slots this decade and have combined for 22 playoff victories. To put that into perspective, these two teams have combined to win one of every five playoff games this decade (22 of 107).
 
Over in the NFC, the Eagles are gearing up for their fifth conference title tilt in eight years and single-handedly claim 10 of the entire conference's 46 postseason victories since 2000.
 
On the other side of the ledger, the AFC's Bengals have enjoyed one winning season, one postseason appearance and zero postseason wins in the last 18 years; the NFC's Lions have enjoyed one-one-and-zero over the last 11 years.
 
Plus, what we consider parity today has always existed. Green Bay's mighty 12-2 Packers of 1966 lost to the last-place 4-9-1 Vikings. The undefeated 1972 Dolphins barely cling to history thanks to a one-point, 24-23 victory over the 4-9-1 Bills. The 1975 Steelers, at 12-2 the most dominant of the Steel Curtain teams, were smacked around by the 8-6 Bills early in the year, 30-21.
 
In other words, lesser teams have always been capable of upsetting better teams in pro football – even the very best teams the NFL has ever produced have lost to inferior teams. The difference today is that the NFL sends these lesser teams to the playoffs – and in some cases it gives them home games, too. Middling teams simply have more opportunities to make noise in the playoffs than they ever had before.
 
The true culprit: tiny four-team divisions
There's another parallel between the 1967 Ice Bowl and the 2008-09 NFC title game, beyond just the pairing of nine-win teams that we discussed earlier.
 
Both games were made possible by the law of unintended consequences and a failed realignment that created tiny four-team divisions and then rewarded teams with playoff spots merely for beating out three divisional rivals.
 
For several decades, the NFL pitted teams in two different conferences of typically six to eight teams. The conference winners met in the NFL championship game. There were no divisions and there were no playoffs, except in the event of a conference tie-breaker.
 
That tried-and-true system changed in 1967, when the NFL created four divisions of four teams each. 
 
So in 1967, the Cowboys won what was called the Capital Division with a 9-5 record; the Browns won the Century Division with a 9-5 record; the Packers won the Central Division with a 9-4-1 record; and the L.A. Rams won the Coastal Division with an 11-1-2 record. Those four teams squared off in the first NFL playoff tournament.
 
Only one problem: the Baltimore Colts went 11-1-2 in 1967 – they were better than three of the four division winners. In fact, the Colts were undefeated at 11-0-2 entering the final week of the season. They even beat the division champion Cowboys and Packers earlier that year. But they were on the outside looking in at the first playoff tournament, losing out on a tiebreaker to the 11-1-2 Rams in the Coastal Division (the Rams were the team that beat the Colts in the last week of the season).
 
So Don Shula's Colts were the first victim of the moral hazard of four-team divisions.
 
Vince Lombardi's squad, as luck would have it, was the first beneficiary: The 9-4-1 Packers not only made the playoffs ahead of the 11-1-2 Colts, they enjoyed a home game for the Western Conference title against the 11-1-2 Rams. Of course, the Packers did their part and upset the Rams in Green Bay, setting up the legendary Ice Bowl a week later.
 
But that famous game is really a quirk of history: if the NFL had not changed to a divisional format that year, the 9-4-1 Packers would have finished in third place in the Western Conference behind the 11-1-2 Rams and the 11-1-2 Colts. The Packers never would have seen the playoffs. The Packers never would have hosted the Ice Bowl. The Packers never would have won a third consecutive NFL championship or a second consecutive Super Bowl.
 
The Rams got screwed the following year, in 1968, when they lost the Coastal Division to the Colts despite a 10-3-1 record and then watched as two teams with lesser records, the 10-4 Browns and 8-6 Vikings, got playoff invites simply because they beat out three division rivals.
 
History repeats itself
The league was ultimately saved from further embarrassment with the AFL-NFL merger of 1970, which introduced two conferences of three divisions each, and a new playoff format of three division champs and one wildcard team from each conference.
 
No longer would an 11-1-2 team sit at home while lesser teams rolled into the playoffs. From 1970 to 2001, it was a system that almost always sent the best teams to the playoffs and, for most of that era, rewarded the best teams with home playoff games.*
 
No more.
 
In the expansion and realignment of 2002, the NFL spit up the lessons in moral hazard it should have digested in the late 1960s. So what we have today is postseason chaos on an even larger scale: a system in which 8-8 teams host playoff games against 12-4 teams, 9-7 teams host not one but two playoff games, 11-5 teams sit at home, and a pair of nine-win teams battle for the right to go to the so-called Super Bowl.
 
It's not a pretty picture. And with no rival league and no merger on the horizon, the NFL needs to find another way to recapture the importance of its bone-crushing regular season and rescue the dignity of its once-proud postseason.
 
* Through 1974, home playoff games were determined by division on a rotating basis; however, with just four playoff teams from each conference, teams that were barely over .500 rarely reached the playoffs, let alone hosted both playoff games.

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