Playoff fairy tales and perversions, NFL style

Surely this must be a misprint:

… 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 not care less about the blood and shattered bodies scattered across pro football stadiums for 17 weeks from September to December.

A playoff system that devalues the regular season?  Get outta here.  Worse than the crap the BCS peddles?  Somebody needs to alert Congress.

After all, what’s the problem, officer?

… 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 total points over the regular season. Yet, as a No. 5 seed, 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 they surrendered (427-426) 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.

As ol’ Louis Renault would say, I’m shocked, shocked to find out that lesser teams can prevail in a single elimination tourney.

Captain Renault is officially neutral in the BCS/playoffs debate.  Pay him his winnings, though.

Captain Renault is officially neutral in the BCS/playoffs debate. Pay him his winnings, though.

Cinderella fans, evidently sometimes you can have too much of a good thing, according to the author.

… 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.

The moral of the story here isn’t that playoffs per se suck, of course.  It’s that there’s no guarantee they’re an improvement over the status quo.

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38 Comments

Filed under BCS/Playoffs, Stats Geek!

38 responses to “Playoff fairy tales and perversions, NFL style

  1. Wolfman

    Great stuff, Senator. I’m desperately hoping the Steelers win the Super Bowl, because if anyone else does, it (yet again) discredits the entire NFL season.

    But then again, who cares? Why even watch the NFL until the middle of December? I choose to watch football that has meaning during the fall months.

  2. Rusi

    Like I said before. How many people are excited about even the best possible Super Bowl matchup…..Steelers-Eagles.

    I take the BCS any day of the week.

  3. Apparently a lot of people Rusi, as it will end up being the highest rated show of the year. And each playoff game is highly rated as well.

    So is this the ugly truth behing the anti-playoff folks argument? They don’t actually want the best team to be champion. They want the teams they LIKE the most to play, so it is the most interesting.

    God forbid sports be able the teams that actually win games to move on.

    At least now I understand why the anti-playoff folks have to make so many irrational arguments. The ugly truth is they WANT the national title to be a glorified popularity contest, and not an actual athletic contest decided by actual play.

    -Michael
    Muckbeast – Game Design and Online Worlds
    http://www.muckbeast.com

  4. Wolfman

    “So is this the ugly truth behing the anti-playoff folks argument? They don’t actually want the best team to be champion.”

    I doubt that we will look back and say that the Super Bowl winner was actually the best team, especially considering that it’s very possible that the LAST team into the playoffs on both sides could represent each conference. And I’d rather have a “glorified popularity contest” between two teams with the best records, instead of a conference championship between two teams that can’t even reach double-digit wins.

    And if Pittsburgh loses today, is it right that Baltimore represent the AFC, despite not winning their division and losing to the Steelers twice? Do regular season games not count as “actual athletic contests?”

  5. Tom

    We keep revolving on this merry-go-round, don’t we Muckbeast? Philly already beat Arizona in an actual athletic contest decided by actual play, Pittsburgh already beat Baltimore, twice, in actual athletic contests decided by actual play… There is no getting around that.

    As much as you can say that the BCS didn’t decide who was the best overall team in college football this year, you can just as easily say that the NFL playoffs won’t be able to say who was the best overall team in the NFL over the course of the whole season. Both systems have major flaws – a playoff wouldn’t “fix” college football.

  6. Dawg93

    No one is advocating something similar to the NFL playoffs (in terms of size). Think about it – 32 teams in the league and after 16 weeks of football, they only eliminate 20 of those teams with the other 12 advancing to the playoffs. (As a Falcons fan, I was quite happy about this, but I digress.) The equivalent # of teams in a Div I-A playoff would be approx. 44 teams. Most folks clamoring for a playoff are saying 4 to 8 teams (which seems realistic) and others are saying 16 (not so realistic, IMO). Even having 16 teams would be the equivalent of having the top 4 NFL teams vie for the title in a playoff.

    I understand the point you worry about – that a 4 or 8-team playoff will eventually expand to something much larger and really take away from the importance & greatness of the regular season. However, I don’t see how it’s possible for that to happen in college football, given the constraints in place (limited number of weekends to play games, the ability – or lack thereof – of fans to travel to playoff games on consecutive weekends, the holidays, the fall quarter/semester ending, recruiting, etc.).

  7. Doc

    A buddy sent me a funny email item:

    A WWII vet was opining over the valueless nature of the BCS Champion selection process.

    “If the BCS had to have decided the Winner and Champion of WWII they would have chosen Germany. Germany won 5 times and only lost once.”

  8. Wolfman

    I understand the argument, and I have no doubt there would be an eventual 16 team playoff…it seems like the logical number. I would like a playoff, similar to the Senator’s suggestion, that it be only conference champions, with other provisions. Granted, it doesn’t seem feasible in the current environment, but something seems wrong, especially considering Pittsburgh is the clear winner of its division, beating Baltimore twice, and yet they have to prove themselves again? I don’t really like the BCS, but something about that just seems wrong, doesn’t it?

    In fact, a playoff in college seems more logical than in the NFL, just because of the number of teams. Think about where the football playoffs seem the most natural: high school. In state playoffs, a team will almost always face, at most, one team that it has faced in the regular season. This allows schools that have not played similar opponents — schools from different regions, as in college — to test themselves against one another. In essence, region against region, pitting teams of unlike circumstance and uncommon opponents. That’s the reason for a playoff — to determine the best team among those teams for which we have no comparison.

    Not that I suggest the NFL do away with the playoffs — the idea seems ludicrous. But playoffs are more palpable as the numbers of teams in eligible divisions increases.

  9. Dawg93

    Wolfman – well said.

  10. MJ

    Muckbeast,

    The people who do not support a playoff have outlined their reasons many times. By definition, this makes them rational (not the opposite as you continue to claim). The fact is, either you don’t like their reasons or you refuse to accept them.

    The university presidents (who are in charge of the whole thing) have made their reasons clear many times. Whether or not you choose to accept those reasons is your business.

    But you can lay off calling people “irrational”. At this point, the repeated use of this line of argument is ad hominem and ad nauseum, which are two common logical fallacies.

  11. Hobnail_Boot

    The NFL needs to restructure its playoff seeding. Keep the entrance requirements the same (4 division winners + 2 wild cards), but give the home games to the teams with the best records, instead of automatically to the division winners.

    It’s nonsensical that:
    11-5 ATL plays @ 9-7 ARI
    12-4 IND plays @ 8-8 SD

    And that’s just this year.

  12. NCT

    I don’t have strong feelings about this whole CFB play-off debate. What strikes me repeatedly, however, is the competing goals: a clear champion versus identifying the best team. The BCS identifies a clear champion, as a single elimination tournament would. The disagreement comes up when people try to figure out what constitutes a deserving champion and how best to identify that team.

    Which was the “best team” in any given season is a matter of opinion. It may or may not be the “champion”, regardless of how that champion is chosen. Back in the day, the SEC selected its football champion according to what team had the best conference record (after a season of potentially egregiously uneven scheduling among members).

    And just last year, UGA was the “clear champion” of the SEC basketball tournament, but I haven’t met anyone who thinks we had the best team in the conference.

    A tournament might identify the best team. It might not. Maybe it would have a higher probability of success than the BCS. Maybe it wouldn’t. Florida might not have won a 16-team playoff this year. Maybe USC would have. Maybe Utah. Maybe Penn State, even. Any of those would have been possible (and “clear”). Would a tournament have settled the “best team” question any better than the BCS did? Nope.

    Without taking sides, I’d say the best argument in favor of a playoff is that it relies on head-to-head results more than the BCS. We accept anomalies in tournaments (UGA basketball 2008), so we can live with anomalous champions. We’re then left to argue over the bad call (by the refs or the QB or whatever) in the second round that cost the team that was actually the best (in our opinion) the championship.

    FWIW, I’m a traditionalist, and I like bowls. I think we have too many, but I like them. I’d like for UGA to get a national championship in football, but I can get plenty of fan satisfaction about racking up some more SEC championships, and I just can’t be bothered to muster up frustration with the current system.

  13. > I doubt that we will look back and say
    > that the Super Bowl winner was actually
    > the best team

    How can you doubt this, when this is what happens every year. The Super Bowl Champion is the best team – period. They are the champion.

    That’s the point. It is an absolute decision. No arguing about Utah and Florida and who beat Alabama worse or any BS like that. An actual champion crowed through actual play. It is as simple as that.

    That is why a playoff absolutely destroys any of this BCS idiocy.

    To whatever extent you think a playoff fails to identify the theoretical “best team”, the BCS doesn’t do that any better. And the BCS does a lot worse, since too much of the ultimate decision comes down to polls and opinions and other BS. In a playoff system, the champion is decided ON THE FIELD which is infinitely better than how Mack Brown lobbies his friends to vote.

    • In a playoff system, the champion is decided ON THE FIELD which is infinitely better than how Mack Brown lobbies his friends to vote.

      Muck, the BCS is a one-game playoff. Florida and Oklahoma decided things, as you put it, “ON THE FIELD”.

      What you are arguing is that the playoffs for D-1 football don’t satisfy your personal criteria for deciding a national champion. Now you may be right or wrong about that, but you’re not really any different in that than someone who finds Arizona playing for a Super Bowl ring unsatisfying.

  14. > The people who do not support a playoff
    > have outlined their reasons many times.
    > By definition, this makes them rational

    I like ice cream because it has bones. I also like it because green planets have blue skies and are covered in cheese.

    I outlined my argument, but it sure as heck wasn’t rational.

    The anti-playoff people are not rational. They come up with absurd crap like “OMFG ITS GUNNA BE 64 TEAMS WTFBBQPWNZORZACKKKK ACK ACK!”

    Every so-called criticism of a playoff system can be equally applied to the BCS system as well. Even the argument in this thread can be applied to the BCS. The whole “you don’t always get the best team as a champion” whine applies to the current BCS system even worse. So it is an irrational, nonsensical argument.

    • The anti-playoff people are not rational.

      **chuckle**

      Tell me what’s rational about insisting that a D-1 playoff format will never grow larger than eight teams, despite the reality that it’s a historical fact that every other postseason instituted has grown well past its original size.

      1-AA football, which I presume you’ll acknowledge is the closest analogue to D-1 football, is headed towards a 24-school playoff. Is that rational? If so, why is it irrational to presume that D-1 won’t head in that direction as well?

  15. Tom

    There’s a big difference between arguing against a playoff, which is what I see most of the anti-playoff proponents doing, here and elsewhere, and arguing in favor of the BCS, which I don’t see many people, including anti-playoff people, doing.

    Anti-playoff does not automatically equal Pro-BCS.

  16. Wolfman

    Muckbeast, I will disagree wholeheartedly that the best team is the one that wins the Super Bowl every year. Is it simply good strategy that a team finishes as a #5 or #6 seed in their conference, and makes it to the Super Bowl? If they really are the best team, then why were they unable to win their own division? I have a difficult time with that. With this argument, if Baltimore beats Pittsburgh today, Baltimore is obviously the better team, despite the fact that Pittsburgh won twice this year already. (Luckily, we can lay speculation to rest later today.)

    It seems your argument rests upon the idea of “actual play,” which apparently does not happen during the regular season. I’m not arguing against a playoff, and I’m certainly not arguing that the BCS solves that problem more rationally. I don’t really think it does. But blindly throwing playoffs at the problem can be problematic, as the Senator has pointed out, shown over the last four years by allowing teams whose “actual play” has been inferior over the course of a season to win the playoffs.

    If Arizona wins the Super Bowl this year, while a great achievement, does not mean to me that they were the best team this year. Their overall “actual play,” while quite good in the past few weeks, has certainly not been championship caliber as a whole.

  17. MJ

    Muckbeast,

    and I like straw man arguments because you make them…

    I’ve made it clear on every other discussion about this subject that I dislike the BCS, and dislike the notion of playoffs even more.

    Again, the university presidents have their reasons. None of them have to do with getting the “right team” as a champion.

  18. Aligator

    I see the regular NFL season as garbage and the playoffs a great addition to the college season when it is over. That is the only time i even watch as the teams are playing their asses off. A playoff in college would be different as you still have 120 teams going lights out each week, the pageantry, the alumni and the history. That makes it a better game. We all know the current system is about the loot, but they can have that too and the bowls tied in if they take the time to do it right.

  19. Hackerdog

    I’m personally undecided whether Muckbeast is simply willfully obtuse for the purpose of trolling, or actually stupid enough to believe the inane argument that he types over and over again.

    I’m feeling charitable right now and I’ll lean towards troll.

  20. keith

    I just don’t understand how anybody can not say that a team such as the NY Giants who won 3 straight road games last year when it counted the most and then went out and beat supposedly the best team in the Patriots, aren’t qualified to be called the best team. Same with the Cardinals. Every team that lined up to play these so called inferior teams knew what that had to do that day but were unable to do it. If anything it proves to me that they are superior in that they have sustained a level of excellence when it counted the most. And some of it on the road.
    The regular season also counts, you have too still win enough games to make it to the playoffs.

    • Keith, you know what I don’t understand?

      How this game meant absolutely nothing this year. Nothing.

      A similar game at a similar time in D-1′s regular season would have caused seismic shocks in the national title chase.

  21. Sparrow

    Keith –

    The fallacy in your argument is that a team like Arizona isn’t necessarily facing the best (by objective standards, W-L) competition possible. There is an inherent conflict in any playoff system that generally requires that a team win its division or conference to play in the post-season. In my opinion, this is most pronounced in baseball, where divisions like the NL or AL East regularly have teams, despite excellent regular season performance, left out of the tourney.

  22. keith

    Every game during the year counts for something. Your won-loss record determines your final seeding and home field. What really counts though is when you are told LOSER GOES HOME!
    Period. End of story. Man up. When the chips on on the line who is the best. At 17-0 the Patriots knew what they had to go out and do. WIN. Bottom line. It wasn’t a one game anamoly. How about a 4 game anamoly. Thats nonsense. I could go along with a one game upset, but when a team goes on the road 3 straight weeks and wins in the NFL playoffs and then proceedes to the biggest game of them all and beats the undefeated team, well thats a little more than an anamoly. Thats proving it on the field. And further more, no dumbass coach with an agenda that hasn’t seen them play a game all year, voted them into that game.

    • C’mon, Keith, the winner went home from that game.

      The forty-point loser, the team that finished with a regular record two games worse than the winner, is playing in the Super Bowl.

      You can be a playoff supporter and still admit there’s something seriously screwed up about that.

  23. keith

    The winner went home but not because of that game. Whether or not you agree with how the participants are determined, anybody that can win 3 in a row when it COUNTS THE MOST, is the most deserving and if Arizona wins the Super Bowl, then based on the 4 straight wins, WHEN IT COUNTS THE MOST, is the best team.
    I don’t want the regular season winner to be the crowned the best because it is too subjective. I want a system in place to earn it on the field after the regular season is over. Oh, kinda like the NFL but with a few tweaks.

  24. HackerDog

    “Whether or not you agree with how the participants are determined, anybody that can win 3 in a row when it COUNTS THE MOST, is the most deserving and if Arizona wins the Super Bowl, then based on the 4 straight wins, WHEN IT COUNTS THE MOST, is the best team.”

    The problem that we have with your “logic” is the WHEN IT COUNTS season. I don’t like the idea of breaking the college season into games that don’t count much vs. games that COUNT.

    I kind of like the fact that all the games in college count. By your own logic, all USC had to do to get in the championship game is beat Oregon St. All Texas had to do is beat Texas Tech. How can those teams bitch about being left out when they didn’t win their games? If you go undefeated in a major conference, you have a 99% chance of playing in the BCS championship game. That’s despite the fact the during the second week of the season, sportswriters start conjecturing about the implications of 5, 10, or even 15 teams going undefeated.

    “I don’t want the regular season winner to be the crowned the best because it is too subjective.”

    What I find subjective is the fact that the Colts went 12-4, the Chargers went 8-8. Head-to-head the teams tied at 1-1. But the “settle it on the field” guys argue that the Colts win in November is meaningless while the Chargers win in January is proof of the superior team.

    Even more egregious would be if the Ravens had beaten the Steelers. The Ravens didn’t win their division (the Steelers did), lost twice to the Steelers during the regular season, yet had a chance to “prove they were the better team” (by going 1-2 against Pittsburgh). A system that allows that possibility is, by definition, flawed.

    “I want a system in place to earn it on the field after the regular season is over. Oh, kinda like the NFL but with a few tweaks.”

    That sounds great if you want to give a team like 9-4 Va Tech a chance to win the national championship. I personally think that’s a joke.

  25. MJ

    Keith,

    The Cards played in the only division with 3 teams that ended the season with losing records. They went 6-0 against those three teams. They were 3-7 against the rest of their league.

    If that caliber of a team were in CFB, they wouldn’t be ranked in the top 10, let alone playing for all the marbles.

  26. Ben

    “I kind of like the fact that all the games in college count. By your own logic, all USC had to do to get in the championship game is beat Oregon St. All Texas had to do is beat Texas Tech”

    It’s not just keith’s logic that all USC and Texas had to do was win those respective games. Had either of them won, they would have played for the MNC. So, I’m not sure where you’re going by saying “all they had to do”. If logic could be attributed to a computer, then the BCS computers would have logically put in either USC or Texas if either had done “all they had to do.” Which they didn’t.

  27. keith

    Thank you Ben. Thats all several of the one loss teams had to do. The only one that did what they had to do(Utah) got left out. They beat several bowl teams(4 or more) and where did that get them.
    It doesn’t do me any good to present this case because everyone arguing against me keeps telling me that those regular season losses evidently should mean more than a win against that same team,everybody say it with me now,WHEN IT MATTERED THE MOST, which I think is insane.So what if Baltimore had won, on that day that Pittsburgh knew what they had to do, they wouldn’t have got it done. A measure of a great team is winning when it MATTERS THE MOST. You know kinda like our dawgs didn’t do.

  28. Hackerdog

    Keith,

    You’re simply arguing our point for us. As Bluto keeps saying, our bug is your feature. You want a post season that devalues the regular season. In your mind, that’s a feature. Then USC can lose to Oregon State and not sweat it, because it didn’t count. Texas can lose to Texas Tech and not care. If an undefeated Georgia were to play Tech on the last Saturday of the year, we could rest our starters because a loss would still guarantee us a spot in the playoff.

    To us, that’s not a good thing.

    If it will help your enjoyment of CFB next year, simply tell yourself that the early season USC loss actually occurred in January. That way, when it counts against USC, you won’t get so aggravated.

  29. Hackerdog

    “So what if Baltimore had won, on that day that Pittsburgh knew what they had to do, they wouldn’t have got it done.”

    So you are in favor of a regular season that means nothing (or very little) and a post season that means lose and go home.

    Why can’t you be satisfied with the college game, where every game is a potential elimination game for the national championship? Look at each Saturday as a playoff. A single slip up against Oregon State and the Trojans lose their chance at glory. Just think of each Saturday as being WHEN IT COUNTS!!!111!!!11 ;)

  30. Hackerdog

    “So, I’m not sure where you’re going by saying “all they had to do”.”

    Keith is arguing that a playoff that erases the regular season is equitable because each team knows that it has to win all its games to get a championship. I’m simply arguing that it’s the same in college football. If a team from a BCS conference wins all its games, that team will be (with 99% probability) the champion. Keith seems to be upset that, in the college game, games in September and October actually count toward determining the champion.

  31. keith

    Do they really? Tell that to Auburn 04,Utah 08, and any one loss team from a BCS conference since this whole mess began. Oh, and the regular season would still be meaningful, you can’t make the playoffs if you don’t win enough games. Just ask any number of teams that did or didn’t make the NFL playoffs.

  32. keith

    Or the fact that LSU lost twice last year to mediocre teams and still made THE game. Once on the last Sat of the regular season.

    Betcha when our dawgs get screwed there be a different tuned sung around here.

  33. HackerDog

    “Tell that to Auburn 04,Utah 08, and any one loss team from a BCS conference since this whole mess began.”

    Auburn 04 is the one case of a BCS conference team getting screwed. Utah had a good team this year, but it’s not a BCS conference team.

    “Oh, and the regular season would still be meaningful, you can’t make the playoffs if you don’t win enough games. Just ask any number of teams that did or didn’t make the NFL playoffs.”

    Sure, the 0-16 Lions didn’t make the playoffs, but the 8-8 Chargers did. And in a CFB playoff, 9-4 Virginia Tech would be in while either Alabama (12-1), Texas (11-1), or Texas Tech (11-1) would be out.

    LSU did win the championship last year with 2 losses, but what 1-loss team had a better year? I think the 2007 UGA team would have had as good a chance as anybody in a playoff. But they were also the perfect argument against a playoff. They were a mediocre team the first half of the year and then they got hot. I’m just not one of those who thinks that playing well at the end of the year means more than playing well for the entire season.