There has been a firestorm of criticism in the past six weeks over the practice by teams that have clinched their post-season seeding, of benching starting players in late season games; games that can have no bearing on their postseason. Most notably, the criticism has been leveled against the Indianapolis Colts who, in week sixteen, pulled their starters from a game with the New York Jets in the third quarter, with the outcome still in doubt. The action by the coach, which he admitted was premeditated on the grounds that the Colts had “locked up” their playoff seeding, was in the interest of assuring the health of his team in anticipation of the playoffs, six weeks in the future. However, it was widely believed to have affected the outcome of the game and resulted in the New York Jets having an unfair advantage in obtaining their own post-season berth. While it is obvious that the outcome of the Indianapolis game remained in doubt when the Indianapolis starters were removed, criticism has focused on that club because the act appears to be a betrayal of fan confidence, and calls the game’s overall integrity into question.
In the past, the argument was made that the opportunity to rest players at the end of the season prior to the playoffs, encouraged teams to compete vigorously in the early season. In fact, the league has given the four most successful clubs in the regular season a week off, to rest and recuperate in keeping with that spirit. However, the importance of certain key players to postseason success, along with the length of the season, not to mention the inherent violence of the game, have conspired to make teams reevaluate the cost-benefit ratio of playing expensive, talented individuals in meaningless games, where the health of those players is paramount in producing competitive results in the post-season. While fans have, to some extent in the past, understood this dynamic tension between player safety and competitive late-season games, they no longer seem willing to trade the latter for the former. Thus, there would now seem to be a compelling weight of public opinion in favor of guaranteeing late-season competitiveness.
Unfortunately, there has been an accompanying lack of creativity in suggesting alternatives to the existing system that might guarantee that end. The league has suggested a draft-pick reward for playing “stars” in the last few games, but this seems unworkable on many levels. How would “stars” be determined? How would a star’s “true” injuries be discriminated from ones that were being exaggerated to hold the player out of competition? How would the league assess whether a club was “playing their starters?” Do 75% of starters, qualify on a given week? How many minutes constitute “playing” a game? Is a great special-teams player, a starter?
In the interests of providing a workable solution, I have another suggestion that requires very little alteration of the current seeding system. Why not award the extra advantage of a week off, not to the two teams in a conference with the best overall record, but to the two division winners with the best record over the last six games? Thus, every team would have an incentive to “finish” the season. For example, in this season, the Indianapolis Colts, leading up to the week sixteen matchup with the Jets, would have already accumulated a 4-0 record in the last six games with two games to go. To insure a week off, however, they would have had to finish with a better record over the last six games than the other three division winners. Therefore, the game with the Jets would have had post-season significance. If they blew off their last two games, they would have ended with a 4-2 record in the last six (which in fact they did). If any of the other division winners had a better than 4-2 record (for example, if the Patriots had won 5 of their last 6), they would have replaced Indy as the 1 or 2 seed.
In closing, I should point out that I am agnostic about teams “playing out” the season. However, I can see which way the wind is blowing. In keeping with the prevailing sentiment, then, I submit this plan, for consideration.