Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What if we had a two year NFL season?

The Superbowl is over and once again I am left wondering the same thing, what exactly does winning the Superbowl mean? Were the Ravens the best team in football? Does winning the Superbowl make you the best team in the NFl or do we have to factor in the rest of the season as well? As a follower of statistics I tend to believe the latter. I think everyone would agree that the Broncos and the Patriots were the consensus best teams in football this year and that multiple other teams (Seahawks, Falcons, Niners and Texans to name a few) had better years than Baltimore. But yet here we sit with Baltimore as the World Champions and the rest of those teams as, well, nothing.

The goal of the NFL is not to establish who the best football team is, the goal of the NFL is to win the Superbowl. The season has two distinct halves, neither of which have much to do with the other. In the regular season the goal is to get into the playoffs, ideally you want enough wins to get either a bye or home field advantage but generally just getting in is the goal. Winning as many games as possible helps but after awhile, wins become kind of meaningless and we are treated to the annual absurdity of teams not trying to win in the final week (or occasional two weeks). After this the playoffs begin and as the Ravens showed us, nothing that came before mattered. Once you are in the playoffs you are essentially playing a new season and everyone is on the same ground. The playoffs are of course single elimination, which means that better teams routinely lose to lesser teams on freak plays, off days or bad luck. The NFL playoffs embrace chaos.

All American sports are the same but most not as egregious as football. In baseball lesser teams can combine skill and luck over the course of a season and make the playoffs over more talented squads but they usually get weeded out over the course of multiple long series (I'm looking at you every Oakland A's team of the last 12 years). While often times the best team in a given year does not the win World Series, the winner is usually a top club as the roughly 200 games they play tends to weed out a lot of luck. The long NBA season and crushingly long seven game series playoff model also serves a similar function of weeding out many elements of chance. The NFL has none of this, it's rare combination of a very short season and single elimination playoff model all but assures that luck is almost as important in skill when it comes to winning the Superbowl.

The most extreme example of this was in 2008. The Patriots finished the regular season with an all time best 16-0 record and went on to lose to the 10-6 Giants (who lost their division by three games) largely because of a play that was complete and utter dumb luck. The narrative of that season is now that the 2008 Giants were the best football team that year and the Patriots, who by all accounts had one of the best football seasons ever, were not. Now you may say this is part of the game. This is what makes football special and I can't disagree with that, it is part of the charm of the game. However I think it would be interesting to explore how we might create a system that would largely eliminate luck from the game and truly reward the best football team each year: So let's once again summon Uatu the Watcher and imagine... what if the NFL had a two year season!?

Outrageous! Blasphemy! Maybe, but hear me out. Instead of having a normal 16 week season followed by playoffs we adopt a new system that plays out over two years. Here is how I imagine it would work:  The first year teams play a twenty game regular season that runs on the same September to February schedule we have now. This season then breaks for the Spring and Summer and begins again the next September and plays nine more regular season games for a total of a 29 game regular season.

After this we move into the playoffs. Their are no wildcards and only divisional winners advance. The Divisional and Conference championships consist of best of three games match up with each team getting a home game and the third game going to the team with the better record. The best part? The Superbowl is a five game series! You may have to wait two years for it but when it comes you get potentially five Superbowls in a row. No additional games have been played under this system, the Superbowl teams will play a maximum of 40 games over two years, exactly the same as now.

Obviously this system still allows for luck and chance but the odds of less talented teams advancing are shrunk considerably. The longer 29 game season will ensure that only the best teams who can sustain long periods of success will make the playoffs. In addition the mid year break gives teams a chance to overcome injuries or other mitigating circumstances that might prevent them from playing as well as possible.The playoff system is still imperfect  teams can easily luck their way through three and five game series but the odds of it happening are much lower with each game we add. In short, this system promotes better teams making the playoffs. It gives you better football.

One problem with this system is how it affects the bad teams. Jacksonville Jaguars fans will be stuck watching 29 weeks of meaningless football and waiting two year intervals for any chance of their team to make the playoffs again. I think we can solve this by also solving one of footballs other big problems, it's draft system. Currently football teams are rewarded for finishing last with the top draft picks the following year. This leads to a system where after it becomes clear you can't make the post season you essentially have no incentive to win games. In fact, winning games after you are eliminated from post season contention actually hurts your overall chances of winning in future years. Under my new system we will invert this process. The teams that make the playoffs will be immediately get the bottom draft picks in order to encourage parity. After that the #1 draft pick will go to the team with the best regular season record and on down the line. This will ensure that every team will be playing hard to win every single game regardless of whether they can make the playoffs or not. You will still have something to root for in week 29 even if it's not a shot at the Superbowl.

I think the best proof a system like this could work can be seen in European soccer leagues  The English Premier League is often derided for it's lack of parity. Since it's modern reorganization in 1992 only five teams have the championship. One of those teams, Manchester United, has won it twelve times. This is because the EPL has a system that rewards the best clubs. Teams play a 38 game season, at the end of the season the team with the best record wins it at all. Their are no playoffs and the season is long enough to make sure only the best teams can compete. The only reason the league lacks parity is because the best teams always win, which in the NFL is not the case.


  1. The Giants did not win solely because of a play that was "dumb luck." If that were so, than the patriots should have won 49-7, with the Giants one touchdown coming via said play. The record-breaking patriots offense, which averaged 35 ppg in the regular season, was held to 14 in the super bowl, which is the result of more than one play.

  2. Basic Stat 101: Everyone knows that the bigger sample you have the less deviations you will have due to luck. Playoffs(for any sport) are designed for upsets, because that's what exciting for fans.
    The only system where the best team is crowned the champion is to only have a regular season (so every game counts) and the team with best record is the champion.