Roger Goodell and the powers that be who run the NFL need to understand what’s best and eliminate divisions in total.NFL Radio host Pat Kirwan recently made a comment on his Sirius radio show Movin’ the Chains in response to a caller’s complaint about his favorite AFC East team being stuck in the New England Patriots division year after year. Kirwan responded to the complaint by saying that perhaps the NFL should eliminate divisions entirely. Kirwan’s comment got a big laugh from both his co-host and from the caller.
However, the idea may not be that funny at all.
In its current state, the NFL is separated into two conferences, the NFC and AFC. The conferences were formed prior to the 1970 season when the NFL and AFL merged. The teams in the NFC and AFC were once in different leagues entirely and the Super Bowl was meant to be a matchup of the best team from each league facing off in the ultimate football championship.
Now, 47 years later, the NFL/AFL rivalry has vanished. There are six more teams in the league than there were at the time of the merger as well as several teams that have moved their homes and /or their conferences. Without the NFL/AFL rivalry, what is the purpose of separating teams into conferences at all? Let’s come back to that later.
If we assume that conferences will live on, the next logical question to ask is how and why are teams separated within a conference? Teams are separated into four regional divisions within each conference (North, South, East and West). Each division has four teams, each conference has 16 teams and there are 32 total teams in the league.
On the surface, this structure makes a lot of sense. Teams within a region play in the same time zone as other teams in their division. Their proximity to one another helps with scheduling and broadcasting, as well as minimizing travel for intra-divisional road games.
However, if one looks under the hood and asks a few questions things become a bit cloudy. For instance, why do the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins play in the East and not the South? Why do the Colts play in the AFC and in the South and not the NFC nor the Central?
The answer is simple: television ratings.
The league knows that the Cowboys vs Giants will be watched by more people than either the Giants vs Panthers or Cowboys vs Panthers. So the Panthers who play on the East Coast are in the South division and the Cowboys who are one of the southernmost teams in the league play in the East.
We’ve established that there are no hard and fast rules as to why teams play in the conference they’re in now or in the division that they are in now. But does it matter and is the structure still fair despite the irregularities? The answer is that it does matter and the structure is not fair.
Prior to the introduction of playoff wild card spots in each conference, the concept of divisions and division winners making the playoffs was relatively fair. Sure, the talent level in each division could be skewed from year to year but ultimately divisional teams were playing on an even playing field. They’d play essentially the same schedule, beat each other up a couple of times a year and at the end of the day the team that performed the best throughout the year would win their division and make the playoffs.
However, now that teams are competing with nondivision teams for playoff wild card spots within a conference, the idea that division rivals play each other twice in a season while not playing other teams in their conference at all is wildly unfair.
This concept is much easier to explain with an example.
I’ll use the New York Jets, Patriots, Colts and Jaguars. Let’s say that, hypothetically, of course, the Patriots are the best team in the world every year for a decade and the Jaguars are the Worst. The Jets play in the Patriots division and the Colts play in the Jaguars division. Let’s assume that the Jets and Colts have the same exact talent level on their rosters. Now, because of the unbalanced schedule, there will be years where the Jets play the Patriots twice and don’t play the Jaguars at all while the Colts play the Jaguars twice and do not face the Pats at all. Now despite the Jets playing a much more difficult schedule, at the end of the year, the Jets and Colts may very well be competing with one another for a wild card spot.
This is fundamentally unfair.
There is a very simple solution to this issue. In order to maintain continuity in the league, teams can remain in the same conferences where they reside today. However, because they are competing for the same playoff spots in their conference there should not be any divisions. All teams in a conference would then play the same schedule, or as close as they possibly can to the same schedule and playoff births would be based on apples to apples comparison.
This may sound drastic but there’s a crazy easy way to do this. The regular season schedule is 16 games long. There are 16 teams in each conference. See where I’m going with this? If every team played every other team in their conference once and rotated a nonconference game every year, both a balanced schedule and fair playoff seeding would be achieved simultaneously. The top two teams in a conference would make the playoffs and earn a bye while the third through sixth seeds would play wild card weekend.
The proliferation of NFL games being broadcast on national television and the explosion of fantasy football have decreased the NFL’s need for forced rivalries. The average New York fan is going to watch an out-of-market game between the Chargers and Raiders more because of their fantasy players than because of the existence of some rivalry between the California teams so why force it?
By balancing the conference schedule and removing the bulk of inter-conference games, the NFL will simultaneously make playoff seeding fairer while also increasing the potential for more intra-conference rivalries. Sounds like a win-win to me.