The NFC East and “Buyer’s Remorse”

If the season ended today — a phrase that normally has the same effect on me as someone scratching their fingernails on a chalkboard, but a one-column exception will be made here — a team with a losing record would win the NFC East, marking the third time since the 2002 realignment that this will have happened (the 2010 Seahawks won the NFC West at 7-9 on a tie-breaker over the Rams, and the 2014 Panthers won the NFC South at 7-8-1).

All of the divisions in today's alignment have four teams. But how many times had a team from a division consisting of five (or more) teams won such a division while finishing below .500?

The answer is zero — and that covers the period from 1970 through 2001 (two of the NFL's six divisions that existed over that period — the two Eastern Divisions — had five teams from 1970 through 1975, four out of six from 1976 through 1994, all six from 1995 through 1998 — and two of them had six teams in 1999, 2000 and 2001).

Indeed, no five-plus-team division was ever won by a team with even a .500 record; the closest it came to happening was in the NFC Central in 1978, when both Minnesota and Green Bay finished 8-7-1, with the Vikings winning the division on the grounds of having beaten the Packers once and tying them once. Four-team divisions have been won by .500 teams three times: The Browns in 1985, the Chargers in 2008, and the Broncos in 2011.

So maybe Paul Allen, Bill Gates' second banana at Microsoft, and Bill Bidwill were onto something when they cast the only dissenting votes against the 2002 realignment as owners of the Seahawks and Cardinals, respectively (Allen didn't want to switch conferences, while Bidwill selfishly wanted to preserve his lucrative division rivalries as a member of the NFC East — lucrative because retirees from the Northeast accounted for a large number of his season ticket holders).

But if the owners were to correct their error of 2002, what might the NFL look like?

The AFC would be pretty straightforward: the Jaguars would move to the AFC East, giving them a natural rivalry with the Dolphins (and both Jacksonville and especially Miami have large retirement communities from the Northeast); the Colts and Titans would be added to the current AFC North to form a new AFC Central (remember that the Titans, formerly the Houston Oilers before they moved to Tennessee in 1997, were originally in that division); and the Texans would join the AFC West.

As in the 1970 NFL/AFL merger, the NFC would admittedly be more problematic — but tradition (which not for nothing kept Dallas in the NFC East) dictates that the Falcons and Saints be kept together (and both of their owners would be adamant about it), and returning them to the NFC West would re-create that division as it existed from 1970 through 1994 (indeed, Atlanta's rivalry with Los Angeles and San Francisco dates all the way back to 1967) except this time with the addition of Arizona. Since Tampa Bay was a member of the NFC Central from 1977 through 2001, the Buccaneers could return to that division, while the Panthers would get to establish a rivalry with nearby Washington as a member of the NFC East.

And if the NFC owners couldn't agree to this or any other alignment for the conference, there's always that trusty fishbowl which was used to determine its divisions in 1970.

Comments and Conversation

December 10, 2019

John Arendshorst:

I’m unclear why it’s a problem that, twice in 17 years, we’ve had division winners with records slightly below .500. Even under the old system, we had crappy division winners (the 1999 Seahawks won the AFC West at 9-7) and playoff teams (the 1991 NY Jets were a wild card at 8-8, while the 1991 49ers stayed home at 10-6). The fact that now occasional playoff teams have records that are very slightly worse doesn’t strike me as an issue that necessitates major structural change.

In addition, the four-team divisions allow for balanced scheduling, where only two games per year depend on a team’s record in the previous season. Prior to realignment, it wasn’t unusual that a mediocre team would go from worst-to-first in a division almost solely because they had a very easy schedule. There’s an argument that the current system is MORE of a meritocracy in that sense.

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