Are NFL Divisional Rivalries Overrated?

In 1986, Randy Travis had this song out, "1982," wishing that he could be transported back to that year so that he could rectify the mistakes he had made since then.

Maybe the NFL could go back there, too.

In that year, stuck with the lemon of losing seven games due to a disastrous strike, the league served lemonade by abolishing divisions and going to a conference-based alignment and having the top eight teams from each conference advance to a "Super Bowl Tournament," which culminated in the Redskins defeating the Dolphins 27-17 in Super Bowl XVII. The player shares for each round of the playoffs were also doubled — and did not return to their pre-1982 amounts in subsequent seasons, in fact more or less going up in concert with inflation: Where each Redskin received $70,000 for going all the way in 1982, each Patriot got $201,000 for doing so last year.

The postseason format worked so well that Staten Island Advance sports scribe Joe Nugent declared flat out, "Division rivalries are overrated," and recommended that the NFL adopt the 1982 alignment on a permanent basis.

And after what happened at the end of the December 22 Dallas at Philadelphia game, it is difficult to argue with Nugent, who isn't around to say "I told you so" because he died in 2006 at the age of 85.

Needing one first down to ice the game on third down and two from their own 42-yard line with 52 seconds left, his team up by 8 and the Cowboys out of timeouts, Carson Wentz handed the ball off to rookie running back Miles Sanders, who broke into the open field. But instead of taking it to the house as one would think he might have done against such a "hated" rival, Sanders did the best version of a baseball slide he could come up with at the Dallas 20, where a Wentz kneel-down with six seconds remaining ended things, after which Wentz and Dak Prescott met and shook hands at mid-field.

Now someone whose opinion is a little more prominent than Nugent, the newspaper for which he worked being essentially unknown outside Staten Island (except during the newspaper strike that gripped New York City in 1978), is taking the same position — Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio, who told Sports Illustrated's Chad Jensen on December 13 that he would like to see the NFL get rid of divisions.

Before dismissing the idea as radical, the NBA has all but gotten to the point of disregarding divisions both in determining who makes the playoffs and how the playoff teams are seeded. The only division-related advantage that remains is that if two teams finish with the same record and split the season series between them (rather frequent because each team plays 10 of their 14 conference opponents four times and the other four three times), and one of the teams won their division and the other didn't, the division winner carries the tie-breaker.

Besides, when the conferences made their debut in 1950 (from 1933 through 1949 the term "division" was used) teams played all but two of their games within their own conference (this did not change until 1967, when the conferences were split up into four-team divisions with the addition of the Saints as an expansion team), so grossly unfair situations rarely arose (not once from 1950 through 1966 did a team that missed the playoffs finish as much as two games ahead of one that made it, and in only six of the 17 aforementioned seasons was there any overlap at all).

But now, with teams playing just six of their 16 (and maybe, by 2021, 17 or 18) games within their own division, the setup has become, besides being potentially unfair, also out of touch with the above-referenced tradition (even as recently as 1970-1977 more than a third of the league's teams played 57.1% of their games within their own division; now the figure is 37.5% for all teams).

Shouldn't seeing to it that the best six (and probably, soon seven) teams in each conference make the playoffs — and ideally, the best 12 (and probably, soon 14) overall — be a priority?

And eliminating divisions harmonizes just fine with the 18-game schedule, because there would be enough room for three interconference games for each team, meaning that teams not from the same conference would still play each other three times every 16 years — down only slightly from the current four times every 16 years.

The tie-breakers also become much simpler with every team in the same conference playing each other, since in a two-way tie, head-to-head would always break it. In a three-way tie, one team could go 2-0, one team 1-1, and the third team 0-2 among each other; if all three go 1-1, it goes to conference record, and if even one team is better or worse therein than the other two, head-to-head between the latter breaks the surviving tie.

Even a four-way tie would not be problematic most of the time: the teams could have gone 3-0, 2-1, 1-2, and 0-3 among each other, or two teams could have been 2-1 and the other two 1-2, in which case the winner of the game between the two 2-1 teams ranks highest and the loser second highest, with the winner of the game between the two 1-2 teams third and the loser fourth. A 2-1 vs. 2-1 vs. 2-1 vs. 0-3 distribution (or a 3-0 vs. 1-2 vs. 1-2 vs. 1-2 distribution) shakes out the same as a three-way tie.

Still another virtue of going to a simple conference alignment is that it all but takes "strength of schedule" — which has been a hot issue in the NFL for more than 40 years — out of the equation, since under it all teams in the same conference would play a minimum of 15 common opponents (with some acquiring a 16th common opponent via interconference play). At present, most pairs of teams in different divisions of the same conference play only five common games, the sole exception arising if the entire divisions played each other that season, in which case there would have been a head-to-head meeting to break any tie.

The Santa Clauses among the NFL owners, with Jerry Jones in the lead, are making their list and checking it twice when it comes to what gifts they will need to offer the NFLPA in order to get them to approve 18 games — and at the top of that list are to drop marijuana from the list of substances to be tested for, as Major League Baseball did on December 12, and an "innocent until proven guilty" policy regarding players who are arrested or otherwise accused of crimes, about which the union is growingly adamant.

So the NFL competition committee needs to take Vic Fangio seriously and consider doing what Randy Travis wished he could have done as regards 1982.

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