NFL Playoff Success Through the Years
Every time when a team like the 2011 Giants or 2010 Packers, coming off a season of mediocrity, wins the Super Bowl, you hear the phrase “the regular season means nothing” thrown around. Normally that is followed by talk of how the salary cap has created parity in the NFL unlike that of any other sport. Anyone can win. Everyone gets a chance. The days of the dynasties are done. Last year it got to the point where people were openly saying it is pointless to even play for the best record because it means nothing anymore. But is any of that really true or any different than in the past?
So with the league on break let’s examine the history. To do so I want to look at three periods. The first is our current period which I will define as 2002-2011. This is the period in which the cap really became a factor for all teams, the league introduced their 32nd team, and the 4 division format was introduced. The period before is the 3 wildcard period which ran from 1990 to 2001. To keep the numbers consistent we will use the 92-01 seasons for our first analysis. This also is the beginning of the cap effects as the cap began in 1994, though the effects were not really felt league wide until the end of the decade when teams started to realize what “cap hell” could be. The final era will be the pre-salary cap , 2 wildcard era from 1978 thru 1989. We’ll focus on 79 thru 89 and leave out the strike shortened 1982 season since that was a total different playoff system.
The first question is has the new rules really effected the chance of playoffs for a team? Not really. Lets look first at seedings in the playoffs over the three eras and percent of teams that qualified.
Essentially the same amount of teams qualified as a number 1 seed in the non-cap days as qualify now. Really if there is any appreciable difference it is that more teams now qualify for the 2 seed whereas before the 3 seed was the higher turnover spot. So really the best teams have not been affected so much by the new rules but there has been a closing gap between the 2nd and 3rd best team in each conference causing much more movement than before. This has led to higher seedings in the current era. If we take a look at highest seed achieved (for 79-89 the ¾ category is just the 3 seed, whereas 56 is for their wildcard teams) we get the following breakdown:
The cap did seem to have some effect on the number of teams able to achieve the top 2 designation, though it has not been as high over the last 10 years as the previous 10 which is kind of surprising. The Bills were the only team to not qualify in the current 10 year period, but only 2 teams did not qualify in the oldest period.
The other argument is that the dynasty has been destroyed and broken up and that it is impossible to have yearly regular season success. We can evaluate that claim by looking at the number of times a team makes the playoffs.
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Not as big of a change as we would think. The big playoff run teams actually occurred just about as often in the cap era as they did in the pre-cap days. The current Patriots have more playoff appearances (9) under the current playoff format than any other team did in the other eras. So the regular season dynasty hasn’t been hurt and if anything maybe has been helped due to well managed budgets. The number of teams that made the playoffs more than 6 times is the greatest now. The difference has really been in that 4-5 years of playoff runs. A lot make it fewer times now than before. I think that goes towards management. Teams have short windows with the same group of players and the teams that manage it well, like the Patriots and Ravens, jump into more appearances, while the teams who don’t such as the Panthers or Vikings, fade away once their impact period ends. I think that’s a worry fans of my Jets have right now.
So in the grand scheme of things the only real difference in the regular season has been more competition between teams vying for the 2nd and 3rd best records and difficulty maintaining moderate period of playoff appearances.
Maybe the difference comes in playoff success. Lets look at percentage of teams that advance to each level of the playoffs:
A larger variety of teams actually made the Super Bowl in the prior two periods than now, though it’s a relatively insignificant difference. The more surprising number is fewer teams are advancing to the championship round of the playoffs now than in the past.
Really the only difference in the current era of the NFL is that the postseason has become more exciting as the gap has narrowed between the seeds and those lower seeds do actually advance. Does that mean seeding is unimportant? No. The majority of teams making the Super Bowl are the teams that rank 1 or 2 in the seeding, its just nowhere near as much of a lock as it was in the past. We can take a look at the whole field here. We will start with the 1 seeds level of advancement in each era.
This is the first real big difference. Championship round appearances, while still high, are nowhere near the level they were at prior to the new playoff format. Super Bowl appearances are no longer above 50% and only 10% of the winners come from a top seed compared to 30% in the 1970s era
Surprisingly the 2 seeds which should be catching a tougher round 2 draw are advancing in far greater numbers to the championship round than ever before, but it hasn’t translated into Super Bowl appearances. Lets look at the 3rd and 4th seeds
The 3 seeds have done nothing since the expansion in wildcard teams. No Super Bowls. Way less Championship round showings. Only 50% of the current teams are advancing to the divisional round which is the real cause of the lack of appearances. If you take into account the fact that the 70s and 80s teams had a bye, the actual success rate of 3 seeds in the divisional round advancing is very close (17.6% in the 90s and 20% in the current era) so it may be that the early teams would have had the same problem. The 4 seeds have been much more successful through history, but the last two eras have seen a major upswing in postseason runs.
Finally you have the non-hosting teams in the playoffs.
In the 70s and 80s the 5 seed was the worst seed in the playoffs though the success rate in the playoffs hasn’t changed except for the Super Bowl. Teams do make the Super Bowl now from the position and win it, which had not happened before. The 6 seed now is clearly better than the 6 seed of the 90s. Whether its parity, poor divisions inflating the records of certain teams, the cap or something else, the 6 seed is better than the 3 seed in the current football era.
So yes it’s true that anyone can win now in the NFL, but great teams are still great for long periods of time. Getting a top seed still means a great advantage in getting to the Super Bowl, even if its not as great as before. The regular season means something and every team should be pushing for that best record. The cap and free agency hasn’t destroyed franchises ability to be great for long periods of time it just needs to be well managed to keep teams flexible enough to make the changes it needs to stay great.
I see now, however, that must have been the case for less than a handful of teams. Also, I now wonder if maybe the Jets ran out of steam in the AFC Championship games BECAUSE they played as a lower seed (and because of all of the ramifications of that).
I honestly feel last year's Giants were an anomaly because they played much of last year missing key players, and those players came back to the field just before the Giants went into the playoffs. I do not feel there was any advantage to them being seeded in a lower slot; just that all of their pieces came together at just the right time. They just happened to be a better team (when healthy) than their regular season record belied. Had they been healthy throughout the regular season, they most likely would have been seeded higher anyway.
I was also surprised to see how poor the 3 seeds have been recently. IMO, thats a big effect of the 4 divisions. I think we have seen that every year there is at least one down division per conference (its been the West on both ends for years) that can produce inflated records when one team stands out. A 6 seed like the Ravens that has to battle it out just to sneak in is just as good, they just had a tougher schedule during the year.