In the NFL, It is Now Expansion Time

From 1934 until his retirement in 1971, New York-based horse racing announcer Fred Capossela was famous for his distinctive, nasal voice, informing fans as the last of the horses in each race were being loaded into the starting gate:

"It is now post time."

More than half a century later, it is now expansion time in the NFL — for the first time since 2002.

And maybe four new teams — not just two — because 34 teams playing 18 games (which is the plan, right?) would produce a very unwieldy schedule format calling for some teams to play six games against like-placed teams from the previous season's standings (first vs. first, second vs. second, etc.) with others playing only four such games in the same season.

There would be weeping and gnashing of teeth from the usual suspects — the Bidwills of Arizona come readily to mind — from any owner whose team got the short end of the stick so to speak (four times over a 10-year period beginning in 1977, the Eagles finished fourth in the then-five-team NFC East, meaning that under the schedule format then in effect, they had to play five games against defending division champions the following season, while the rest of the division only had to play three such games; constant kvetching by Eagles owner Norman Braman, who bought the team in April of 1985, led to the schedule format being changed starting with the 1988 season).

In addition, in all 12 years of each cycle of 34 teams playing 18 games, the two fifth-place teams get to play each other twice — once at home and once away (from 1978 through 1994 the fifth-place teams played four games against each other every year).

But if there was a concrete commitment to add four expansion teams during a three-year span, in the first two years, the first two expansion teams can play each other twice (once at home and once away) and all 16 pre-existing teams in their own conference once each; this was done with the Seahawks and the Buccaneers when they entered the NFL in 1976, with the teams switching conferences in 1977, so that in both years combined Tampa Bay and Seattle played each other twice — at Tampa Bay in 1976 and at Seattle in 1977 — and every other team once.

The same thing can be done this time around — with the two expansion teams switching conferences in the second year, giving these teams four meetings against each other (two at home and two away), and one meeting each against every other team.

Then in the third year, Teams 35 and 36 go in, creating two 18-team conferences, with two five-team divisions and two four-team divisions in each conference, the fifth-place teams playing all four teams from both four-team divisions in their own conference, plus one game each against the two fifth-place teams in the other conference. All other teams would play the top four, or all four, teams from a division within their own conference, plus the top four, or all four, teams from a division from the other conference. The remaining two games would be games against like-placed teams from the previous season's standings within the same conference.

Under this formula, every team has four games against first-place teams, four games against second-place teams, four games against third-place teams, four games against fourth-place teams, and two games against fifth-place teams — essentially the same distribution that prevailed from 2002 through 2020, except that in those years there weren't any fifth-place teams.

And even in a 34-team league (and definitely in a 36-team league) an eighth team can be added to the playoffs in both conferences — and since, unlike in baseball and the NBA, the NFL could continue to practice re-seeding after the first round, giving the top seeds the maximum advantage possible, and take away any incentive for a team to "tank" a late-season game to get a 6 seed rather than a 5 seed — something that is rewarded in both MLB and the NBA.

But what cities should get the expansion teams?

The answer for the first two is obvious: Columbus and Oklahoma City.

Columbus, whose population was 905,748 as of 2020, is larger than that of Cleveland (372,624) and Cincinnati (309,317) combined, already has a pro sports franchise in the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets. So if Columbus fans can afford to attend up to 41 NHL games a year, they can certainly afford to attend nine NFL games a year.

For the other expansion team, Oklahoma City gets the nod over both San Diego and San Antonio — San Diego because their voters turned down a new stadium since it would have cost them a 1/4% increase in the local sales tax, San Antonio because Jerry Jones and Cal McNair, owners of the Cowboys and Texans, respectively, shouldn't have much trouble finding seven friends among their fellow owners to block any new team in the Alamo City (and like Columbus, OKC already has a pro sports franchise — and a pretty successful one at that — in the NBA's Thunder).

Obviously, the Columbus team would be slotted into the AFC North, while a good case can be made for the Oklahoma City team to go into the NFC East, to give the Cowboys something they have never had — a natural geographical rival (the two cities are a mere 207 miles apart).

Then the owners have two years to decide where the other two new teams should go — or they can simply stay at 34 (when the NFL had 31 teams in 1999, 2000, and 2001, there were some scheduling inequities, especially in the AFC).

And the NFL Players' Association would welcome expansion with open arms: a 34-team league, plus an increase in roster sizes from 53 to 57, means 342 more dues-paying union memberships (456 more such memberships in a 36-team league) which, coupled with a 10% across-the-board salary increase for all players under contract as of March of the "new league year" in which expansion takes effect (since a second bye week, including an automatic bye the week before any Thursday game) because 20 (the total number of weeks in an 18-game schedule with two bye weeks for each team) is 11.1% more than 18 (the number of weeks in the present schedule), would be, as Don Corleone famously said, an offer the union couldn't refuse.

Plus, it goes without saying that included in the package would be a reduction in the number of exhibition, aka preseason, games from three to two, along with including the Hall of Fame Game as part of Week 1 of the exhibition season, to be the first game played therein.

Yes, Edward Abbey did say that growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.

But he wasn't talking about sports leagues.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site