Members of the NFL’s competition committee met here Thursday at the scouting combine and spent some of their time discussing the possible expansion of the playoff field from 12 to 14 teams.
Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy, a member of the competition committee, said the committee’s deliberations on the issue were in “still just the early stages.” Murphy said it also was not clear whether a proposal to expand the playoff field could generate sufficient support among the sport’s team owners to be enacted.
“It’s hard to tell at this point,” Murphy said.
Currently, six teams in each conference qualify for the postseason — the four division winners and two wild-card teams. The two top seeds in each conference receive first-round playoff byes.
Expanding the playoff field by one team in each conference would mean that only the top seed would get a first-round bye.
The other possibility would be to expand the playoff field by four teams — two in each conference — and eliminate first-round byes entirely. But that would leave half of the teams in the league reaching the postseason, and the prevailing sentiment within the NFL seems to be that would be diminishing the meaning of the regular season too greatly.
“I think there would be more support for one,” said Murphy, a former Redskins safety. “Then you still have one team that would get a bye. In some ways, that might make that more valuable.”
The competition committee could propose a playoff expansion to the owners, who are scheduled to meet in March in Phoenix at the annual league meeting. Any change would have to be approved by at least 24 of the 32 owners.
A playoff expansion would be attractive to television networks and potentially would generate additional TV money for the NFL in the future.
An expanded postseason potentially also could be paired with a reduction in preseason games, perhaps from four to two per team.
“I think you have to look at it in context,” Murphy said. “Will there be other changes tied into it?… I think they could [be paired together]. I think so.”
The league previously has proposed lengthening the regular season from 16 to 18 games per team while reducing the preseason from four games to two. But the players’ union has balked at an 18-game regular season and NFL officials have said they would not lengthen the regular season without the union’s consent.
One person within the league said Thursday it appears just as likely that the NFL eventually will have a 16-game regular season with a two-game preseason as it is that it will have an 18-game season with a two-game preseason. An expanded postseason would enable the sport to recoup the revenues lost by shortening the preseason.
Ray Anderson, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, said an expansion of the playoffs and a reduction in preseason games don’t necessarily have to go hand in hand but they do represent a possible attractive combination.
“I have never heard a notion that it has to be linked,” Anderson said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not an option to consider as a way of doing that…. That might have some appeal to folks. If we’re going to reduce preseason games, which some people say don’t offer much value, in exchange for that, consider offering additional playoff games. That’s a thought worth thinking about, in my own mind.”
Anderson said that with or without a reduction in the preseason, a bolstered postseason field is an option at least worth considering.
“Every year, that subject comes up,” Anderson said. “The fact that we’re talking about it again means it has at least a lot of interest…. But we’re still early in the conversation. There are some interesting views on it. One view is that your season can be viewed as successful or not successful depending on whether you make the playoffs…. You give two [or] four additional teams an opportunity to go the playoffs and you never know. The Giants were 9-7 [in the 2011 regular season] and came back and won the whole thing. And there’s the other side that says going to the playoffs is an earned thing. You’ve really got to earn it and if you expand the number of teams, it dilutes the accomplishment…. It’s good conversation. It’s still early. But I wouldn’t count it out.”