Scheduling change makes final regular season weekend more meaningful for NFL
Saturday, January 1, 2011; 11:15 PM
Indianapolis Colts Coach Jim Caldwell helped set Sunday's Week 17 NFL schedule more than a year ago, when he rested his front-line players for the playoffs instead of chasing an unbeaten record.
League officials scrambled to devise a strategy that would keep end-of-the-regular-season games without playoff implications appealing to fans. Instead of a directive that all starters must play, they decided to add some flavor to the final weekend by featuring 16 intra-division matchups.
When the teams take the field Sunday, a majority of the games could affect postseason berths or seeding. The others will rely on rivalries to keep fans interested.
"I do think this has the best chance of working," New York Giants co-owner John Mara said late last week. "You can't force teams to play certain people. If you play division games, you motivate people to play their starters as much as you can, I think. People want to win those games. They don't always like the other team too much, and maybe they don't want to see that team make the playoffs."
Said Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, the co-chairman of the NFL's competition committee: "The teams like it. I think it does drive fan interest. I would be surprised if the reaction is not extremely positive when we poll the clubs after the season."
The Colts were 14-0 last season when Caldwell pulled quarterback Peyton Manning and other starters from what became a loss to the New York Jets. Caldwell said his goal was to give his team the best chance to win in the postseason, not to go undefeated. The Colts reached the Super Bowl but lost to the New Orleans Saints.
Caldwell's move sparked a debate across the NFL and among fans about how to entice teams to do their best in such games - and put on a compelling show for ticket buyers and television viewers. There was little support for ordering teams to play their starters. One possibility was rewarding a team with an additional draft choice for playing its starters after its playoff spot was secured, but that idea has gone nowhere.
"If you're in that position and you think you have a chance to make a run for it all, I don't think a draft pick is going to change your mind about what you're going to do anyway," said Mara, a member of the competition committee. "It certainly worked for us playing our regulars at the end of the season. But I think most people feel like they'd rather sit people out and make sure they're healthy for the playoffs."
McKay said he would like to see reconsideration of a re-seeding proposal. That would allow a wild-card playoff team with a superior record to a division-winning team to secure a higher playoff seed and host at least a first-round game.
That could be another way to have more at stake in late-season games. This year, for example, it would give a wild-card team a home game against the winner of the NFC West, either Seattle or St. Louis.
But many franchise owners want teams rewarded with home games for winning their divisions, as in the current arrangement.
For now, McKay said, there's nothing more the league can do on the issue.