31 December 2013

Who Is The Best?

But winning the division, no matter how bad a division may be, continues to carry a playoff berth and a home game.  While it would be unfair and impractical strip a division winner from a berth in the postseason, why does the best of four bad teams deserve a home playoff game?

Florio’s analysis—breathtakingly stupid as it is—really just hinges on one tiny little error:  he assumes that the team that wins the championship is really the best team in the NFL in a given year.  This is an astonishingly stupid assumption because a) “best” is a subjective valuation while “champion” is an objective state of being and b) “best” is dynamic.

To illustrate this, simply ask which team is better: the week 7 Colts that beat the Broncos or the week 10 Colts that got crushed by the Rams?  Clearly, anyone with two functioning brain cells would have to say that the week 7 Colts were superior to the week 10 Colts.  Also, anyone with two functioning brain cells would have to note that the two Colts teams were not the same, as one had Reggie Wayne and the other did not.  Trying to evaluate which team is the best is a dynamic activity because the teams themselves are dynamic, and their composition is generally subject to change, which is why it is difficult to make accurate single-team comparisons not only a cross an entire season, but season-to-season and even across eras as well.

But more to the point, the best teams of the 2013 NFL season are clearly the weeks 1-5 Broncos and the weeks 10-13 Seahawks.  You’ll note that neither of these teams are considered best for the entire season since a) their team compositions have varied and b) their performances have as well.  The Broncos opened their season with a five game stretch of utter dominance that they haven’t shown since, and while the Seahawks have been generally consistent (all of their losses have been by less than seven points), no stretch of games quite matches that middle stretch of utter dominance.  Clearly, the “bestness” of a team is subject to some degree of fluctuation, and no team is perfectly and unequivocally dominant as evidenced by the fact that both the Broncos and Seahawks have suffered losses.

Trying to determine the “best” team is thus a fool’s errand because the best team isn’t always the same team week-to-week, as any perusal of a weekly power rankings system will show.  Thus, it is subsequently foolish to expect the annual champion to be the best in the league simply because there is too much variance in a team’s quality on a daily and weekly basis.

Consequently, the rules for determining a champion are always going to be both arbitrary and flawed.  Florio has noted the flaws of the NFL championship system, but this is hardly cause for concern since it is never the case that the “worst” team in the league is the champion.  In fact, it is pretty much always the case, under the current set of rules, that a very good team will be crowned champion.  Not the best team, mind you, but a very good one.

The last ten AFC representatives in the Super Bowl have been New England (4 times), Pittsburgh (3 times), Indianapolis (twice) and Baltimore (once), while the last ten NFC representatives have been (in reverse order): the 49ers, the Giants, the Packers, the Saints, the Cardinals, the Giants, the Bears, the Seahawks, the Eagles, and the Panthers.  Of the two lists, the only team arguably bad team would be the 2008 Cardinals.  And the lost to the considerably superior Steelers, which again goes to show that the NFL’s attempt to design a championship system that favors very good teams does, in fact, work as intended.

My personal preference for a playoff system is simple:  division winners only, no wildcards.  Want to make the playoffs?  Win your division.  Now, this is an entirely arbitrary system.  But here’s the thing:  any and all playoff systems are completely arbitrary.  Every last one.  Even the ones that are based solely on record.

More to the point, the playoff style of the NFL makes a lot of Florio’s objections kind of dumb.  If, say, the Packers really are the best team in the league right now, what with Rodgers getting healthy again, does it really make that big a difference whether they are seeded fourth or sixth?  I mean, if their dominance is inevitable, does their seeding really matter?  To put it in a more tautological perspective, if the champion is the best team, then the advantages conferred by seeding are mostly illusory, when viewed ex post.  Since you actually have to play the games, the advantages of seeding are just that:  advantages. They are not guarantees.  Sure, you don’t want to put the better team at an unnecessary disadvantage, but if they are the best  team, they will likely find a way to overcome their disadvantages.

Getting back to Florio, if what he wants is the best team crowned champion each year, then what he needs to advocate is a 31-game schedule that ensures each team play all the other teams in the league once, and then crown the team with the best record as champion.  This would be the most fair way of determining record, but even this method has obvious flaws.

The truth is, what makes the NFL—and sports in general—so entertaining is that it is frankly impossible to say with certainty who the best team or player is.  The debate—not the answer—is what makes the NFL so fun.  And trying to determine the definitively best team is to destroy to the essence of sports entertainment.