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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How to fix NFL's scheduling problem

There is a solution that would eliminate this and make all 16 games meaningful for the players and the fans, and it's found in rearranging the schedule.
Every November, as the NFL's playoff picture comes into focus, there are teams that have locked up their playoff seeding and face the question of whether to rest starters in weeks 15-17.
This season, two teams were flirting with perfect regular season immortality - the Colts and Saints. The Colts rested starters, the Saints "went for it" but didn't achieve it (it ain't easy).
Forget about the philosophical problem of whether rest takes a team out of its rhythm or may in fact rightly reduce the risk of an injury when playing was unnecessary from a playoff perspective, I'd like to talk about the fans.
If a team who has their playoff position secured by week 14 rests its starters, then in reality it has decided not to treat the fans to seeing the stars play. Shouldn't I get a discount on my ticket price? Where's the entertainment value watching the stars holding a clipboard?
There is a solution that would eliminate this and make all 16 games meaningful for the players and the fans, and it's found in rearranging the schedule:
  • in the first four weeks, play only teams from "the other" conference. So, NFC teams only play AFC teams and AFC teams only play NFC teams in weeks 1-4;
  • the next seven weeks are all conference only games, so AFC plays AFC but not from their own division, and same over on the NFC side;
  • the last six weeks are all division weeks; two games vs each of your division rivals, played in back to back mini-series, like baseball (home and homes). So, Miami at New York Jets in week 12, and New York Jets at Miami Dolphins in week 13, while Dallas Cowboys are at New York Giants and then the New York Giants are down at Dallas Cowboys;
  • all bye weeks are in the last 6 weeks, to provide rest evenly (what's the value of a bye week in week 2?
This way, no team will know whether they've got a playoff spot locked up until week 17. And, in week 1, since no team knows what position it will be in in December, there will be no resting of starters in September.
That will demand that the entire season is "meaningful". In terms of staying healthy, teams will have to decide to rest key players at various stages during the regular season (much like goalies take night off in hockey). It will also give back ups a chance to play a "real game" that matters, rather than going in in the 4th quarter of a blowout or in week 17 when home field is locked up (it also sends a more positive message to back ups that they are being depended upon to perform, rather than thinking that "this game doesn't matter" because they usually only see action when their performance is not directly linked to the team's overall success.
From a marketing perspective, it's golden. Now you've got distinct phases of the season that you can package - league play, conference play, and divisional play. And, as the season advances, each phase ratchets up the drama, the tension, the stories...but nothing can be decided or known until full on engagement in the divisional play.
And, of course, in that first phase, league play, all the conjecture about the eventual Superbowl matchups can be made, and then as we move into the conference phase, we can begin to see which teams are shaping up to make through, the drama intensifying even more in divisional play.
Creating some rule forcing teams to play starters is not a very good idea. Changing the schedule will allow (and require) that each team makes its own decisions about who to start; but it will take away the certainty that the current schedule supports, and that alone would change how teams manage their starters in the late stages of the season, without making any external decisions for them.
After all, if the Indianapolis Colts were 10-0 going into week 12 (assuming they've had their bye already), but they had not yet played Houston, Tennessee or Jacksonville, could they possibly think to do so and potentially lose all six games to division rivals? Heck no, Peyton Manning would be under centre for every snap....which is what the fans pay to see.

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