Summary: The NFL's current use of geography to determine which four teams are in a division is arbitrary and should be dismantled. The NFL should consider other options for organizing the regular season schedule in order to improve the overall quality of the regular season and the playoffs. I recommend that the NFL abandons the idea of conferences in favor of an system that encourages both winning and rivalry.
A quick caveat before I go into the details of what I am proposing. I am only changing what I believe to be arbitrary rules and divisions that the NFL ascribes to. The idea of two conferences is tied to an outdated merger that has little meaning for the majority of current fans, especially younger fans who came into the game in the 1990s. I am not proposing any changes to the number of games in a season, nor how many teams go to the playoff. There are rational, though certainly not perfect, explanations for those decisions and I am not taking umbrage with them at this time.
As a fan of the Bucs, I know what it is like to have a team placed in the wrong conference. We never belonged to the NFC Central. I welcomed the switch to the NFC South where we could create our own rivals. So far it has been good, but the reorganization did not strive for greatness. It settled for a workable solution that largely confined to the previous division architecture. The recent reorganization demonstrates that geography is important. I've had more fun rooting against the Saints, Falcons and Panthers than I ever did against the Bears, Lions and Vikings.
But, you know who I really want to root against. The Jaguars and the Dolphins. Like Sean Connery in Highlander, there can be only one. The problem with the reorganization is that it did not go far enough. It was constricted by the sanctity of the American and National football conferences (Seattle did not get the memo).
Now, to the good stuff. Here is what should have happened when they decided to get rid of three divisions in each conference.
1st. Get rid of the AFC and the NFC. This is not baseball where the AL and NL actually play by different rules. The NFL doesn't call it interleague for a good reason. No one cares when teams from different conferences meet up. Excitement before a game stems from good teams, regardless of where they hold allegiance. Conferences are used as a fallback to hype up mediocre games between weak teams.
Additionally, the conferences impede parity as shown by the dominance of the NFC in the 90s and the AFC in the 00s. This usually reduces the significance of the Superbowl by making the conference championship game the real decider of who will win it all. Now while that wasn't the case last year, I find it disheartening to know that the best two teams in the NFL usually do not play against each other in the Superbowl.
Finally, who still owes allegiance to the conferences? Do people really have AFC or NFC pride? I understand why college football values conferences because there are so many teams and you have a host of conferences actually competing against each other. This is not the case with professional football.
2nd. Get rid of the formality of the four divisions. I emphasize the formality of them, because I do think that a lot of these divisions posses fantastic histories and dramatic rivalries. The Bears should play Green Bay each year. The Redskins should play the Cowboys. The Chiefs have to play the Broncos. But, do the Cardinals have to play the Rams? The Colts versus the Texans? Some of these games just don't make sense.
Here is what should happen.
2a) Each team has six rivalry games each year. A rival is determined based on the team's history and geography. I do think that the owners, players, coaches, press and fans should all have a say before determining a team's six rivals. Let's take Tampa as an example. For me, Tampa's six rivals should be (not in any particular order):
2b) Each team plays their rival at least once in a season. The home team alternates each year for a rivalry games.
2c) The next seven games will be determined as follows. Just like with the draft, each team is ranked from one to thirty-two. Instead of creating divisions of four teams based on geography, the four team divisions will change each year depending on their success from the previous season. If you finish as one of the top four teams you are in division one. If you finish in the bottom four, you are in division eight.
You play each team in your division. The top seed gets to play at home twice, hosting both even seeds. The bottom seed gets to play on the road twice at both odd seeds. Let's take last year as an example.
New York - 1
New England - 2
Green Bay - 3
San Diego - 4
So for next season, New York would host New England and Green Bay and play on the road at San Diego. New England would host Green Bay and San Diego and play on the road at New York (Check out the following for the full breakdown, H=Home, A=Away)
Additionally, division one will then play division eight. Two will play seven and so on. This will account for seven regular season games. If a team in one of your division games also happens to be a rival, you will play that team twice. The higher seed will retain home field advantage.
This system of having the bottom division play the top division prevents all the good teams from destroying each other and allowing a bad team to sneak into the playoffs.
2d) The next two games will determined by owners agreeing to play each other. At a minimum, these agreements will last for two seasons and each team will have one home game. This option allows for additional ‘rivals' to be added and can be a great way to give fans interesting games.
2e) The final game will be determined based on record. The final game will not be scheduled before the season starts. Rather, the seventeenth week of the season will be used to help determine which bubble teams should make the playoffs. Teams that are in contention for a playoff birth will be paired against one another. At this time, I am not sure how to make this work and what to do about teams already in the playoffs and teams already out. Thoughts? Obviously, a logistics expert needs to be brought in for this.
3rd. The top twelve teams after this season will be ranked and the top four seeds get buys. The next eight seeds play with fifth seed playing the twelfth and so on.
4th. This system would be amazing. It comes so much closer to actually creating parity and takes away a lot of the bad games that we see in the NFL. Realistically, this system is not all that different from what we currently see. The NFL does a pretty good job of having the heavy-weight teams duke it out. New England's schedule this year demonstrates that. But, this schedule does a better job guaranteeing that top teams will play each other.
Most importantly, this system allows for more rivalry games and a more logical playoff.