Sunday, January 03, 2010

Today, I'm bringing democracy to the NFL. Next week, I'll bring it to the US Senate. (Nonsportsmanlike Conduct!)

This week, I am going to propose a revolutionary change to pro sports, something that I am not afraid to do because as I face the prospect of turning 41 next week, I've realized that there is some freedom that comes with being old.

For example, I am free to not really care anymore that Facebook deleted my account, finding me unsuitable to mingle with the 33 billion other people who have Facebook accounts because I made too many friend requests. Sure, it bothered me at first that Facebook looked down on me, because Facebook doesn't look down on the practice of encouraging abusive husbands to look up their wives; but I've gotten over it, so I don't even mind that Facebook lets a convicted burglar flip people the bird on their site while evading the police.

(Plus, since Facebook dropped me, my readership is up!)

In addition to having the maturity to not mind that I can no longer waste a few minutes each day reading OMG! Is It Monday Again! written by people who should never use OMG

(and, I cleaned that up; it was typically OMG Isi t Mondy ag in)

(...Can we all agree that every single person in the world should learn to type, and if you can't type, then at least spell check?...)

I also have the freedom to admit two other important facts about me:

One, most of the time I now I wear pajama bottoms around the house, and

Two, I think that the NFL should use a part of college football's system for playoffs rather than the other way around.

The pajama bottoms thing is easily explainable: they're comfortable. I have to wear dress-up/grown-uppy clothes five days a week; sometimes more if Sweetie makes us go to a thing on Saturday or Sunday, like when we go to her parents and I feel compelled to wear a sweater and blue jeans, the sweater counting as the "dress-up/grown-uppy" clothing in that mixture. And the jeans, too, because at worst on the weekends I want to wear not a sweater, but a sweatshirt, and there's a difference, isn't there? It's not the same, wearing a sweater to relax. Try wearing a sweater to a football game get-together. Or to the Mall playground with your three-year-old Babies!, the playground you always have to go to because you live in Wisconsin and from December 26 through March 4 the high temperature is eight degrees, so you can't go outside, really, at all, but nobody has thought yet to build indoor playgrounds, nobody except McDonald's, that is, and you don't have any money on you to buy something at McDonald's and you feel bad going in and using their playground without at least buying a soda, for Pete's sake, which is weird, because you'll go use the Mall playground and not buy anything at the Mall, without feeling bad, but I guess it's not actually that weird because if you think about it, if you were to go to McDonald's and spend $2 on a soda then you could use the playground without any feeling of guilt, so the cost of using the playground, then, is $2, and if you go to McDonald's and use the playground without buying the soda, that's like stealing two bucks from McDonald's. But at the Mall, the cost of the playground is also a Theoretical Two Bucks only there's, what, 35 stores, if you count that kiosk that sells only calendars and somehow is open year round anyway? And that's not counting the one place that pops up every Christmas selling hermit crabs, which I think would be the worst possible pet to find under a Christmas tree:

Parents: "Merry Christmas!"
Kids: "Eeeeeek!"

So in using the Mall playground without buying something, I'm still stealing a Theoretical Two Bucks, but it's divided by 35, and $2.00 divided by thirty-five is... um... I don't know. I left my calculator down in the downstairs conference room of our office, and I don't feel like opening up the computer-calculator, so let's just say $2.00/35 = $0.08. So if I use the Mall playground without paying, I'm stealing $0.08 from each store, which isn't very much, so it seems less guilt-inducing, although now that I've worked it out I can see it's morally wrong and I should stop doing it. Only I won't. Fight the power. Or something.

That, in a nutshell, is why I feel free to wear pajamas during the day when I'm not working and not expecting to go anywhere. Or maybe I didn't explain it at all; I got kind of lost there and there's no way I'm going back to re-read everything I just wrote, and I wasn't really paying attention.

The other thing, the college-vs-NFL thing, is equally important and equally unembarrassing to me, even though everyone in the world including The Boy thinks that college football's system is screwed up and the NFL's system is great and also (probably) thinks that the BCS is responsible for everything bad in their lives, ranging from the lack of new flavors in Ramen noodles to the Death of Conservative Thinking, a death best explained by this video:

Did you catch what happens between 30 and 40 seconds? Dana Perino, who apparently held a position of some significance before her lobotomy, said "We did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush's term." And neither of the two guys around her bothered to correct her.

To most people (everyone but me), the BCS is responsible for that: The BCS is responsible for Dana Perino's complete lack of intellect/memory that doesn't go back more than 7 years, and it's responsible for terrorist attacks that may or may not have occurred during Bush's years, and it's responsible for science being unable to find a way to get more than 12 grains into an average loaf of bread, and it's responsible for the way my feet hurt at the end of the day.

The BCS, in short, is bad. Not as bad as the Worst-Possible-Hitler-Analogy-Ever, which I heard this morning on ESPN radio, when Beano Cook (who is, I believe, a sports guy of one sort or another) was talking about who he'd pick in the BCS National Championship Game, Texas or Alabama. Beano (?) said that he's picking Alabama, even though he likes Texas, and he explained that he doesn't let his heart make his picks by using this analogy:

If Germany invaded France, I'd root for France but I'm going to pick Germany.

At which point I had to invoke Godwin's law and change the station.

But who will we compare Obama to, if this becomes
common practice?

Courtesy: XKCD.

But I'm not one of those people (everyone else in the world) who thinks the BCS is terrible. I like the BCS, because it combines a couple of things that I think are important: Sports, and democracy.

It's been said over and over that the BCS should be replaced by a "playoff system," and that the BCS is not "fair" and that we shouldn't let computers choose a national college football champion. But all of that is bunk, because there's nothing inherently more fair about any other playoff system, and the way we choose other champions is even less fair and less transparent than the BCS.

So all those other systems have nothing on the BCS; they don't improve it any way, but they do make things a little worse, because by not using the BCS, other sports leagues guarantee that most games don't count, whereas, in the BCS, all but one game typically matters.

College football's BCS system means that college football teams play, at most, one meaningless game per season.


That's this many.

Every game in a college football team's schedule, barring maybe the last one, is a meaningful game. (And that last game, the one that might be meaningless, is usually played over the holidays, when you're not really watching, and sometimes features fun matchups, the kind of what-would-happen-if type of game that fans love to talk about. What would happen if Notre Dame played Wisconsin? Who would win if Florida met Auburn? Bowl games answer that question.)

That can't be said about any other sport. In baseball, last year's/most year's World Champion, the Yankees, were 103-59, so in baseball you can lose 59 games -- more than 1/3 of your schedule -- and still be the World Champion. Minnesota (they have a baseball team? Apparently so!) lost 76 games and made the postseason; in baseball, you can lose almost 1/2 your games and still get into the postseason.

Basketball's a mess -- almost every team makes the playoffs there. Last year, New Orleans (THEY have a team?) won 49 games -- barely over 1/2 -- and made the playoffs. In the NBA, you can lose 1/2 your games and get into the postseason.

Don't even mention such notable nonsports as NASCAR or Indy racing or golf, where you don't need to ever even win to become famous or get awards.

I think the trophy could be a little bigger; it's not clear, yet,
just how much you're overcompensating.

In college football, by contrast, teams have got to win, all the time. And not just win, but win good. And win quality games. Teams have got to play big games from beginning to end and win them; if they're not playing a name-brand opponent, then they've got to slaughter the other side just to stay even with the other teams.

Consider four teams that were contending for the National Championship towards the end of the season:

Boise State in its nonconference schedule played Oregon, which finished the season ranked at number 7 in the BCS. Texas played Texas Tech and Colorado and Missouri. Alabama played everybody, it seems. Even lowly TCU played Texas to beef up its schedule. Teams that wanted to make a go at the national championship made sure that they played worthy opponents. (USC, which didn't even come close this year, stacked its own nonconference schedule with games against Ohio State and Notre Dame.)

The BCS forces teams to do that. In college football, if you want a bowl game, you have to win six games. But that won't get you a good bowl, or the National Championship; that'll land you playing the Huskies in the International Bowl. If you're a college football team and you want a real bowl game, you have to win all your games, and you have to play good opponents. Teams that snuck into the BCS top 25, like Central Michigan, know this: Central Michigan scheduled games against Arizona and Michigan State to bump up its BCS cred. Brigham Young played Oklahoma (then ranked 3) and Florida State (losing to the latter, but in the BCS, a loss to a quality team still helps.)

(My home state of Wisconsin scheduled nothing but cream puffs in its nonconference season -- and struggled to remain ranked as a result; in the end, the Badgers played a meaningless bowl game to round out their season.)

These guys were terribly concerned about
the outcome of the bowl game that day.

No other sport does that: No other sport not only ensures that every game but one counts, while also ensuring that teams will seek out quality opponents. Can you imagine if the NFL did what the BCS does: Let teams schedule a few of their own opponents, then count the results? What would the NFL season be like if the Packers, instead of playing two games against the Lions, made sure they put the Patriots* and the Colts on their schedule because they wanted a shot at the Superbowl?

The NFL doesn't do that, though: They don't allow teams, or encourage teams, to play meaningful games against quality opponents, and they don't ensure that every game counts.

In the NFL, only about 9 or 10 games count; a team with 9 or 10 wins can generally make the playoffs, so the remaining 6 or 7 games don't really matter. That was amply demonstrated last year by the Chargers, who finished 8-8 and sewed up a playoff spot in the final game of the season, and will likely be demonstrated again this year if the Jets win tonight and make the playoffs at 9-7; if the Jets do that, then 7 of their games didn't matter. (The Tennessee Titans came excruciatingly close to making the playoffs this year after starting 0-6, helping [almost] further prove my point.)

That leaves the NFL with meaningless games, especially in Week 17, a week that is so meaningless, even the NFL admits it doesn't count.

That's right: The NFL doesn't really count Week 17. You can tell they don't because the NFL's fantasy football league, run by the NFL on the NFL's own website, ends in Week 16. (This year, in my league, Mr F's and Mr Bunches' team, the Pantless Pete's, won the league! Hooray for them!).

The NFL doesn't run fantasy football into Week 17 because Week 17 is meaningless: most teams won't even try to win today. Peyton Manning and Drew Brees will not step on the field. Brett Favre might not play. The Packers and the Cardinals will likely save their real firepower for their likely matchup next week.

There are 16 games on the NFL schedule today, and 7 of them are absolutely meaningless: they could in no way impact the postseason, period. Those games include one of the league's marquee teams, the Colts, who will travel to Buffalo today in a game that doesn't matter to either team.

Today will mark Buffalo's 367th
consecutive meaningless game.

If it doesn't matter to them, why should it matter to me? I won't be watching, and I'll probably instead watch Ninja Cheerleaders, which I taped off of Showtime last night.

Of the remaining 9 possibly meaningful games, well, there's meaningful and then there's... "meaningful." Sure, there are a bunch of AFC teams with their hopes alive for a playoff spot, but hopes should rightfully be in quotes: "hopes."

Take a look at the hopes of one team, the Denver Broncos, who started 6-0 under Nearly Quarterback of the Year Kyle "Ortsie" Orton. Here is the official NFL layout of the Broncos' playoff scenarios today. The Broncos can make the playoffs with a:

- Win over Chiefs plus losses by at least two of the following: Baltimore (at Oakland), Jets (vs. Cincinnati), Pittsburgh (at Miami)

- Win over Chiefs plus Jets loss AND wins by Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Houston (vs. New England)

- Win over Chiefs plus Houston win AND loss by either Baltimore or Jets

- Loss to Chiefs plus Pittsburgh loss AND losses by at least three of the following: Baltimore, Houston, Jacksonville and Jets

- Loss to Chiefs plus losses by Baltimore, Houston, Jacksonville and Jets.

Note that the Broncos can make the playoffs even if they lose. They could go 2-8 over the second 2/3 of the season, losing their final game, and still make the playoffs.

Does that sound like a meaningful game to you?

In reality, there are two meaningful games, really, in the AFC today: The Ravens and the Jets both "control their destiny," meaning if they win they're in the playoffs. The Jets were scheduled to play early, so most teams would know fairly soon whether they had anything left to play for - -but the NFL moved the Jets' game to Sunday night, a canny move that meant that some teams would have to at least pretend to play today.

So the NFL's system might not result in meaningful games, but it is claimed to be fair, unlike the Hated BCS. The BCS is seen as so unfair and is so hated that it actually factored into the election of Barack Obama, and took up some of Congress' time in 2009. The people who say that the BCS is unfair, though, can be described in one word:


Sorry, President Obama. I hate to label you with the rest of the dummies, but you are.

In saying the BCS is unfair, the people who label it as such demonstrate that they don't know the meaning of fair. Fair is having everyone play by the same rules and not favoring any one person arbitrarily. That's fair, and unfair is the opposite of that.

It would unfair if the BCS were to say Wins by Florida count a little more because we like them.Or it would be unfair if midway through the season the NCAA said "If you have worn uniforms with red on them, you're out of the running for the championship." Changing the rules, or having squishy, arbitrary, unknown criteria for selecting a winner, is unfair.

The BCS doesn't do that. EVERYONE knows how to win in the BCS, how to get themselves to the National Championship game: Win all your games, and win them against quality opponents. That's all. If you don't play many quality opponents, well, then... fix that. Play them. College football lets you set your own nonconference schedule, so everyone could play good opponents if they wanted to do that. College football even lets you change conferences to get better opponents, so teams like Rutgers (which made an abortive run for the National Championship not long ago) could get a leg up and try again.

The NFL doesn't let teams change divisions to try to increase the odds that they'll make the playoffs, do they? Ask Dallas and Houston how they feel about the idea that they could go jump into the NFC North, or the NFC West.

The BCS is perfectly fair; it sets out the rules and expects people to play by them, and everyone knows what the rules are. That puts the BCS miles ahead of such other noteworthy postseasons, postseasons like the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, which is inherently unfair.

That's right: the NCAA Tournament, which is so frequently heralded as a model of fairness, is about the least fair thing ever. The NCAA Tournament selects its entrants one of two ways: One, win a Division One Conference Tournament. Or, Two, be selected based on unknown, arbitrary criteria by a supersecret star chamber.

Let's look at Way Number One, first: The Ultra-Fair (?) Way the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament lets people into the postseason is to win a Division I Conference Tournament Championship. Back in 1955, that let Bradley into the Tournament -- with a 7-19 record. More recently, in the past 20 years or so, 5 teams with losing records have made the NCAA Tournament. Sure, they all lost in the first round -- but half the teams in the Tournament lose in the first round, and wasn't there a better team to play in the first game than Florida A&M (8-18 in 1999, and made the NCAA Tournament.)

So in the NCAA Basketball postseason, not only do you not have to win all your games to get in the tournament, you only have to win three games or so: a team could lose every single regular season game, win three games in the conference tournament, and they're in.


What about Way Number Two? Selection by the UltraTopSecretSuperDeluxe NCAA Tournament Committee (UTSSDNCAATC)
Original title for this movie:
NCAA Selection Committee Training Video.

People complain all the time that in the BCS, "computers" pick the winner. (They don't; Computer help select the top two teams for a one-game playoff. Again, people who don't like the BCS are, in a word, dumb). But is the alternative any better? Who's on the UTSSDNCAATC? Do you know? I do -- they put it on the Web (they put everything on the Web, now, including top-secret anti-terrorism procedures.)

Right now, two of the Selectors are commissioners for conferences; the rest are Athletic Directors at colleges, with three big colleges represented. But that changes every year; about 1/3 of the Selectors are new each year... and who chooses them?

And what criteria do the Selectors apply to let schools in? Nobody knows. You can't find the standards on that website. You can't find them anywhere.

Oh, but the NCAA Selection committee does use computers. They use "RPI," a statistical analysis based on strength of schedule and win losses.Just as the BCS does.

Wait a minute... the Tournament uses RPI. And
if you replace the "R" with an H, and the "P" with
an A, and the "I" with an L... it all makes sense now.

So the most-fair-system people can think of is completely unfair, and also makes use of the despised computers to help be so unfair. That's a powerful argument in favor of the BCS; at least the BCS is upfront and applies the same rules to everyone.

Now, after all that, you'd think I'd be wholeheartedly supporting just simply using the BCS to select the NFL's winner each year, and I've in the past argued for just that -- importing the BCS into the NFL and letting it set up the two top teams to play in the Superbowl, regardless of division or conference.

Doing that, I theorized, would result in great Superbowls, the games people really want to see. We could see Colts-Titans, if that was the number one game. Or Saints-Patriots*, or any combination we wanted, provided the computers helped up pick it.

But I like the NFL playoffs, because I like it that I get to see each game and I like pro football on Saturdays, and I like it that the games really matter, unlike the NFL regular season. I like anything, in fact, that extends the pro football season in a meaningful way, so I'm no longer arguing to scratch the NFL system in favor of the BCS.

Instead, I'm arguing to adopt a portion of it for the NFL (and all other leagues, which would equally benefit from this idea.) Here's what I think the NFL should do:

Adopt a little democracy for your postseason.

To be more specific: Stick with the current format of division winners, and two wild cards. But instead of having the two wild cards be selected purely by record (as they are now), have the #5 Wild Card be selected by record, and the number #6 Wild card be selected by a BCS-style ranking system of fan votes and strength of schedule.

Here's how it would work. The NFL would play its regular season just like now. At the end, for 24 hours, following the close of Week 17, fans could vote for the teams they wanted to be the #6 Wild Card in each conference, the AFC and NFC. The NFL would take the fan rankings and match them up with the strength-of-schedule rankings, and have computers determine which teams not already in the playoffs would be the number 6 team by selecting the highest-ranked team not already in the playoffs.

It's genius, and I don't mind saying so myself.

It's the kind of thing Einstein would've come up with,
if he'd ever bothered working on something important.

Having a Fan Vote Wild Card would do a couple of things: First, it would encourage teams to take seriously every game on their schedule -- and would especially encourage weaker teams to really go all out against stronger teams. If you're a Tampa Bay or Cleveland, and you beat some playoff-bound teams like Green Bay and Pittsburgh (as each of those teams did this year), that'll give you some hope that you might make the playoffs even though your record isn't that great. If you're Pittsburgh and you're 8-7 because you lost a key defender and play an impossible schedule, you're still alive in the Fan Vote. If you're the Titans and you started 0-6 but changed quarterbacks and then went 7-2 since that time, you've got hope, too.

Next, the Fan Vote Wild Card would get the team the fans love into the playoffs, and how is that not a good thing? NFL, you want fans to watch, and how better to guarantee they'll watch than to put the team they love into the game they're watching?

The Fan Vote Wild Card could even replace the joke that is the NFL Pro Bowl voting -- voting that is completed before the season is over, and which votes players into a game they'd rather not play on. The NFL could scrap the Pro Bowl, but televise the Fan Vote Wild Card Selection, replacing the Pro Bowl in the ratings game.

If the Fan Vote Wild Card existed today, we'd all watch today's games and teams would go all out in today's games because starting at about 10 p.m. tonight, the fans would begin selecting the two final teams for the playoffs -- and later results count more than earlier ones, as we all know.

I even know who I'd vote for, pending today's games. In the NFC, I'd replace Dallas with the Carolina Panthers, a move that makes sense because Dallas can't win a playoff game with Tony Romo, whereas the Panthers have been playing excellent football lately and have a good new quarterback taking charge of a young, hot team that has, this year, beaten Brett Favre's Vikings, the defending NFC Champion Cardinals, and trounced the giants 41-9 in a must-win game for the Giants.

In the AFC, the obvious choice is the red-hot Tennessee Titans, who under Vince Young have lost only twice in the past 9 games -- those losses coming to the playoff-bound Colts and Chargers. While the Titans are 0-2 against the top two AFC seeds, they're 7-0 against the rest of the NFL recently, but won't get a chance to play in the postseason. If the Fan Vote Wild Card existed, they'd be in, the Jets would be out, and we'd get a great first-round matchup with an exciting team instead of the prospect of watching Mark Sanchez throw four interceptions next week.

Instead, because the Fan Vote Wild Card isn't a reality yet, and because everyone thinks playoffs are fair and the BCS isn't, we're stuck with pro sports in which only about 1/3 of the games matter, playoffs that routinely feature mismatched opponents in blowout games in the first round, and a lot of time to watch Ninja Cheerleaders instead of pro sporting events.

I'll be watching in my pajamas.


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