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Patriots' case unlikely to change system

Little support seen for revising format

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / December 31, 2008
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If Patriots owner Robert Kraft had gotten his way five years ago, his team might be preparing for a playoff game instead of a long offseason right now.

Back in 2003, the Patriots joined the Kansas City Chiefs in sponsoring a proposal to expand the NFL playoffs from six teams per conference to seven. The thinking was that with the league switching from a three-division setup in each conference to a four-division setup (starting with the 2002 season) there were only two wild-card teams instead of the three there had been since 1990.

The proposal would have given only the team with the best record in each conference a first-round bye, but the Chiefs withdrew before it could be voted on because of a lack of support.

"There was not enough sentiment that you were leaving good teams out," said former Houston Texans general manager and current CBS analyst Charley Casserly, who was on the Competition Committee that year. "The thought was you would end up with more mediocrity than quality.

"This year is an exception. We know that."

The plight of this season's Patriots, who became only the second 11-5 team since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978 and the first since the six-playoff-berths-per-conference format was enacted in 1990 to miss the postseason, might reignite the debate over playoff expansion and the fairness of the current system.

The case for expansion is bolstered by the fact that the 8-8 San Diego Char gers are in the playoffs as winners of a mediocre AFC West.

According to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, it is up to the teams to determine the agenda for the Competition Committee, and any club can make a proposal.

The committee reviews proposals and makes recommendations. Proposed rule changes then are placed on the agenda for the NFL's annual meetings, to be voted on by the member clubs.

Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, who is co-chairman of the eight-member Competition Committee along with Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher, said via e-mail that he does not envision there being enough momentum to expand the playoffs.

"The expansion of the playoffs to 14 teams has been discussed on numerous occasions by the membership over the past 4 or 5 years," wrote McKay. "At no time has there been any real sentiment to make the change, as membership believes the current system serves us very well.

"Since our conversion to the 8 divisions of 4 [teams], the Patriots are the first team to have [an] 11-5 record and not qualify for the playoffs. Traditionally, we have not been a league that has reacted quickly to anomalies but, rather, have tried to correct 'trends' that need addressing."

The chief argument against expansion to seven playoff spots per conference is that only the top-seeded team in each conference would get a bye, as opposed to the top two teams. Casserly said many consider that too much of an advantage.

Also standing in the way of a playoff format change is the fear that it would cheapen a division title, which the league puts a great deal of value on.

However, the NFL has altered its playoff format before.

Prior to 1978, there was only one wild-card team per three-division conference, but with the switch from a 14- to a 16-game schedule, the league added another wild card. The two wild-card teams in each conference played each other in the first round, while the three division winners were idle. That's the way it stood until 1990, when a third wild-card team was added in each conference and the two division winners with the best records got byes.

You would think Patriots players bitter about being left out at 11-5 would be in favor of expanding the playoffs, but running back LaMont Jordan put a stiff-arm on the idea.

"There is no need to alter anything," said Jordan. "I think too many times people want to alter something that doesn't really need to be altered for the benefit of other people.

"To me - I'm having trouble choosing my words wisely - the system is already perfect. The only thing you could do is mess it up. By expanding it, I think you're really taking away from the end of the season. The top six teams in each conference get to go, and that's how it should be."

When it was pointed out to Jordan that the top six teams didn't go because the Patriots' 11-5 record and the 9-7 mark of the New York Jets were better than that of the Chargers, Jordan said the Patriots and all the other teams know the simplest way to avoid being left out of the playoffs.

"You know coming in that first and foremost you want to win your division," said Jordan. "I think that's why they have divisions in place. There is no sense in having a division in place if there is an opportunity that you can win your division and [not make the playoffs].

"I think it's fair. The divisional leaders get to go no matter what their record is, and the two wild cards. I think it's perfect. There is no need to alter it in any way. I think if you alter it, it would do more damage than good."

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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