No matter the opinion of Roger Goodell’s performance in his seven-year tenure as NFL commissioner, one fact that cannot be disputed is that he has initiated more rule changes in the NFL than any other commissioner in far less time.
Some have been undeniably positive but others have been met with substantial criticism and negativity, from former and current players alike.
The main driving forces behind the changes have been competitive balance and player safety.
The changes to the overtime rules, for example, have been positively received for the most part, as the intent of lessening the importance of the coin toss has been clearly achieved.
The latest discussion that that is gaining traction with the competition committee is the idea of adding two additional playoff teams, one in each conference. Other possible changes include eliminating the extra point and kickoffs and adding two regular season games to the schedule.
The 18-game schedule proposal is clearly less about player safety issue and more about increasing league revenue so that one might be difficult to agree to, but the extra point and kickoffs could be gone sooner than you think.
Of all these changes, the one that is most likely to happen in 2014 is the addition of a seventh playoff team in each conference. Looking back at the history of the playoff structure of the NFL, the last major change occurred prior to the 1990 season, when a sixth playoff team was added to each conference. This created a second wild card game in each conference, as well as a second team with a first-round bye.
To understand why this happened in 1990, one must look at the league standings the prior five seasons. Between 1985 and 1989, eight teams finished the regular season with ten or more wins and still missed the playoffs. In 1988, the 10-6 San Francisco 49ers won the Super Bowl while two other 10-6 teams, the Giants and Saints, missed the playoffs. Shortly after the changes in 1990, no teams with ten or more wins missed the playoffs between 1992 and 2004, until the Chiefs broke that thirteen-year streak in 2005.
But the trend has picked up again in recent years, with teams winning divisions with seven or eight wins, while four teams in the last four seasons have missed the playoffs with ten wins, sparking more questions of competitive fairness. Helping the argument is the fact that three consecutive teams with ten wins or fewer won the Super Bowl between 2010 and 2012.
In a league where it is becoming increasingly important to get hot late in the season, adding a seventh playoff team could give more teams a chance to make a run. The Arizona Cardinals are the only team to beat the Seahawks in Seattle in the last two seasons, but they were eliminated from playoff contention before their next game, so even a home win over the 49ers would have left them outside looking in at 11-5. They lost a close game to the 49ers in Week 17, who were playing to improve their seeding.
Action is sparked by a pattern of competition inequality, and that has been evident again in recent years. The alternative options such as not guaranteeing playoff qualification for division winners or having the twelve best teams regardless of conference eligible for the playoffs would go against the tradition of the league. So adding a seventh playoff team and only having one team in each conference with a bye is the most likely solution. It will improve the competitive balance, as well as increasing league revenue by adding two additional playoff games each season.
Honorable Mention: 2010 Giants, 2010 Chargers, 2008 Patriots, 1991 Eagles – The 2010 Giants lost their division on an improbable blown lead at home to the Philadelphia Eagles that was capped off by a memorable DeSean Jackson punt return for a touchdown. They were three years removed from their own shocking Super Bowl victory over the previously undefeated Patriots, and also won the Super Bowl the following season in 2011.
So they had Super Bowl talent on the roster, and it was a season in which the 10-6 Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl, so it was a wide open field in January. The 2010 Chargers finished the regular season leading the NFL in both total offense and defense in terms of yards, but numerous special teams blunders throughout the season left them with a 9-7 final record.
The 2008 Patriots actually went 11-5, but this was the season in which Tom Brady tore his ACL in the opening week of the season and Matt Cassel quarterbacked the Patriots, so they were unlikely to make a deep run in the playoffs. But it may have been Bill Belichick’s best coaching job. The 1991 Eagles had one of the five best defenses in NFL history, with superstar talent including Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Seth Joyner and Eric Allen, but after a season-ending injury to Randall Cunningham, they went through four different starting quarterbacks and could not keep pace with the 14-2 Redskins and the up and coming dynasty in Dallas.
5. 1979 Washington Redskins – Though the Redskins have had three teams miss the playoffs with a 10-6 record between 1979 and 1989, the 1979 version was probably the most complete. With Joe Theismann and John Riggins in their prime, the offense was rock solid and the defense could hold their own as well, led by two Pro Bowl cornerbacks.
But they played in a tough division and could not keep pace with the 11-5 Cowboys and Eagles. The Los Angeles Rams would end up winning the NFC with a 9-7 record and losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl. Had their schedules been reversed, the Redskins may have been three or four games better than the Rams instead of just one.
4. 2012 Chicago Bears - The Bears started strong in 2012, led by an opportunistic defense and an improved offense helped by the addition of two new wide receivers, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Quarterback Jay Cutler was in his fourth year and playing well, while the rushing attack was balanced led by Matt Forte and Michael Bush. But a midseason injury to Cutler prompted a losing streak that put the playoffs in jeopardy.
Despite winning their final two games, the Bears did not have the tiebreaker over their division rival Minnesota Vikings and missed the postseason, which ended up costing head coach Lovie Smith his job. Longtime middle linebacker Brian Urlacher retired after the season when the Bears did not offer him a new contract, and the defense fell apart in 2013, putting up the worst statistical season in franchise history.
3. 1985 Denver Broncos – The only other 11-5 team to miss the playoffs, the ‘85 Broncos lost twice to the Los Angeles Raiders late in the season, which would cost them the division. They also lost the tiebreakers to the 11-5 Dolphins and Patriots, so they were the odd man out come January despite reaching the playoffs the previous two seasons.
This was John Elway’s third season and he put up a then career-high 3,891 yards passing along with 22 touchdowns and 23 interceptions, also a career-high. He carried the offense like he did for most of the first 10-12 years of his career, and the defense was above average too led by linebacker Karl Mecklenburg.
The most frustrating aspect of missing the playoffs for Denver was the fact that the 8-8 Cleveland Browns reached the playoffs that same season, winning a weak AFC Central. But Elway and the Broncos would get their revenge on the Browns in the following two seasons, beating them twice in the AFC Championship.
2. 1991 San Francisco 49ers - In their first season in the post-Montana era, the 49ers stumbled to a 4-6 start in something of a rebuilding year after also losing Ronnie Lott and Roger Craig the previous offseason.
But they figured things out quickly and got back on track led by Steve Young and Jerry Rice, winning their final six games and finishing with a 10-6 record.
They lost the tiebreaker to their division rival Atlanta Falcons, however, and would not qualify for the playoffs. The 49ers would bounce back the following season to win the NFC West and secure home field advantage in the NFC.
1. 1988 New York Giants - During an era in which the NFC East dominated the league like few divisions have in any sport, the Giants were essentially in their prime in 1988.
Lawrence Taylor had 15.5 sacks and was at his dominant best leading one of the finest group of linebackers ever assembled. On the offensive side, Phil Simms was steady and solid under center, and Joe Morris was still effective running the ball, while Lionel Manuel and Mark Bavaro were reliable targets for Simms. They were swept by the Eagles though, which cost them the NFC East.
That same season, the 49ers who also finished at 10-6, ended up winning the Super Bowl. In their previous two playoff matchups with the 49ers after the 1985 and 1986 seasons, the Giants had beaten them 17-3 and 49-3. They effectively had the number of the decade's dynasty, and ended up bookending the 1988 season with two Super Bowls in 1986 and 1990. So to call 1988 a missed opportunity for the Giants would be an understatement.