It's (Long Past) Time for NFL Owners to Get Rid of Automatic Home Playoff Games for Division Winners

By Jason Lisk

The 2014 NFC South may be the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back,” though at this point, I am not hopeful. Since October 5th, the division is 2-15-1 against teams outside the NFC South. A 4-7 team currently leads the division. Tampa Bay, at 2-9, is not eliminated.

I am not hopeful, though, because it is the owners who have repeatedly, when given the opportunity and presented with the arguments and the real-life examples, punted and continued the current flawed system.

This is not a new position, based on this year’s results. Seven years ago, I wrote about the need to eliminate automatic home games for division winners.

"If you want to automatically guarantee division winners a playoff berth, fine. But I fail to see how simply being the best of a historically grouped, geographically grouped, or randomly generated group of four teams automatically merits a home game, without any consideration for how that team did relative to the rest of the conference. I don’t think there is any stone tablet that decrees that division winners must play at home, even if they have a worse record than a wild card qualifier."

In the next offseason, the NFL’s Competition Committee sought to introduce a similar change to the playoff structure that would have given the two best division winners a bye, but then seeded the wildcard round in a way that wildcards could get home games. Ironically, that proposal was led by current Falcons President Rich McKay, who’s team could benefit in 2014 because of the failure to adopt his proposal after the 2007 season.

[NFC South: Three Brilliant Ideas to Fix the Playoff Format]

“It went down in flames,” Giants co-owner John Mara said at the time, and it was withdrawn before even getting to a formal vote because their was so little support from the owners to changing the playoffs to a scenario where the better team got a home game.

“I do believe if you win a division, it’s good for your fans to know you will have a home game,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. “To win a division, there is a reward and we wanted to keep that.” (“Owners turn back on playoff seeding”, Buffalo News, April 3, 2008).

“I talked about the importance of division rivalries and how that would be devalued,” Packers President Mark Murphy said at the time.

The next year, it was introduced again, this time as a team proposal by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Again, it was withdrawn for lack of support before reaching a formal vote.

So a couple of years later, in discussing a potential overtime solution (which I prefer over the current one which leads to an increase in ties), I also talked about the arguments for not changing.

"The primary reasons I saw from the owners for rejecting it really don’t hold water. “It will diminish the value of a division title”–I think that teams that play one of the easiest divisions of all-time and go 3-7 outside of the division do that. “It will hurt teams that play in tough divisions and reward wildcard teams that play in easy ones”–absolutely false based on history, as the strong wildcard teams generally play in tougher divisions and lose out because of being paired with a #1 or #2 seed. If a team wins a division at 9-7 or worse (and thus every other team had 9 or fewer wins), then I submit that the division was in fact, not a tough one. “Tradition: Division winners have always been granted a home game”–again, this is not true, unless tradition goes back to 1990. The NFL has, and I believe will again, changed its playoff structure for the better. Until 1975, for example, division winners with the best record could be forced to go on the road based on a pre-set rotation that assigned home games,without considering a team’s record. But I digress. "

Mind you, these debates and arguments were taking place before Seattle became the first home team to have a losing record, after the 2010 season. As that season wound down, and the likelihood of a sub-.500 host became more likely, the idea again arose. “I see the merits of what they are talking about, but we have always focused a lot on winning your division,” Roger Goodell (who had earlier supported the proposal that failed in 2008) said. (“NFL meets in Fort Worth to discuss labor agreement”, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 16, 2010). 

“It’s come up every couple of years when we have a season like this,” said Titans coach Jeff Fisher, a longtime member of the Competition Committee. “There are arguments in favor of it but I think fans deserve a home game specifically for the division winner.

“Everyone’s objective initially is to get to the playoffs, but more importantly, win your division. I think the division winner should be rewarded with a home playoff game, regardless of record.” (“West-case scenario: NFC could see team with losing record as playoff host,” The Associated Press, Dec 26, 2010).

These arguments have never persuaded me. Home games are a zero-sum game. It’s not like we take one away without another team (and one with a better season) getting the same. Rewarding a team with a playoff spot in the tournament seems like a pretty big carrot when a team could have a losing record. Great, so your objective is to win your division. You should do that. But if you do it at 7-9, sorry, you shouldn’t get a home game. The other arguments–tradition, and that it burdens teams that play a tough schedule–are laughable. Division winners often never got a home game prior to 1990. Prior to 2002, top wildcard teams used to get a home game, too. Recent history has shown that division winners with bad records came from bad divisions. It’s almost a necessity.

I’m rooting for a 6-10 NFC South team this year. Even moreso, I’m rooting that it is wrapped up before week 17 so we can watch a team with a losing record then tank it and rest starters while saving up for a home game. Hey, it could happen, as New Orleans and Atlanta play in week 16 and the winner might clinch with that result. It often takes bad results to change the rules. Of course, the owners–who to these point seem only competent at getting taxpayer money–have been pretty stubborn on this point.

God forbid we devalue a division title by not letting a 6-10 team get what they deserve.