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Throwback Thursday: Perfecting the Playoffs

Posted Dec 26, 2013

Hunt wanted to say goodbye to the bye

Lamar Hunt has been duly credited with many innovations in his sport, although it is no surprise that he rejected plaudits for any role he took in the improvement or alteration of the game of professional football, preferring a more modest tract as simply a team owner. One of his last efforts to improve the game he loved was the NFL’s playoff system, which Hunt found in need of what he called, “modifications.”

Hunt saw the current playoff format of four teams receiving a bye in the first round, in addition to home-field advantage, as “significantly flawed.” The shortcoming, to his mind, was the inequity of the strength of schedule. In layman’s terms: some teams earn byes, because they play a less-difficult schedule than their competition.

But Hunt had other reasons to tinker with the system that had as much to do with marketing and building interest on the road to determine a yearly Super Bowl champion. The first week of the playoffs features none of the league’s teams with the four best records on television, since they are afforded byes. “Imagine the angst,” Hunt told a New York Daily News reporter, a few years back, “if the NCAA post-season basketball tournament awarded byes to four teams from its 65-team field.”

Always one for statistical analysis, he laid out evidence showing that the 12-team format, adopted in 1990 (his letter to the commissioner’s office was dated 18 January 2006), was “overly protective for those [home teams] with byes.” To Hunt, all teams should have to “navigate the same number of games to win the Super Bowl,” he wrote again to Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, later that year. “It’s simply not fair for teams to get byes.” He went on to offer how the system should be changed:

•    16 teams qualify, with eight from each conference, four divisional winners, plus four Wild Card teams with the best records. His reasoning was this would assure that more teams are “competitively alive, through the final week of the regular season.” Further, he contended that the occasional upset by a lesser team would be attractive to fans. Moreover, the inclusion of more teams gave them new “marketing muscle to advertise themselves the next season as a ‘playoff team.’”

•    The Wild Card weekend would feature eight games, with a home-field advantage, for each of the eight division winners; there would be no byes.

•    The Second weekend would include four games with a home-field advantage to four teams (two per conference) with the best records.

•    The Championship Game weekend would feature AFC and NFC Championship Games at two pre-selected neutral sites, across conference lines, so as to assure no home-field advantage and no major weather advantage. This was a deal-breaker for most opponents to Hunt’s plan, since fans that had backed their teams, over the season, wanted to be able to see them play on their home fields.  

This criticism never gained any traction with Hunt. While no one can be sure of his motivation, it’s safe to guess that here was Hunt the marketer, building the Super Bowl to be a colossal moment through the promotion of the championship games as important in their own right as major events.

But there was that other reason: assurance of what he called “the fairest competitive scenarios for the four teams to qualify for the Super Bowl;" again, his disdain for what strength of schedule did for some teams and not for others.

Hunt promoted his idea before NFL owners and he strongly believed it was worthy of further study by the NFL’s Competition Committee as to rectify the “inequity of the existing bye structure, which is significantly impacted by the relative ‘Strength of Schedule” of the teams.”

None of Hunt’s efforts in this matter came to pass and were rejected, without gaining much support from other NFL owners, the league’s Competition Committee, and an always skeptical media, who believed there were already too many NFL teams in the playoffs.

But much like the two-point conversion, or names on jerseys, or the sharing of television revenues, this idea’s time may come to pass and someone with a good memory will recall that it was an always innovative Lamar Hunt who had thought of it in the first place.

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