The NFL found itself in a difficult position with a suspended game and a set of policies with a small amount of flexibility to be comprehensive. The commissioner is authorized to make certain competitive decisions, but because of dueling provisions the league had to make a few policy decisions on the fly. As a result, the NFL owners voted on a package of playoff tweaks that, while not completely fair, seek to be the least unfair.
The policy manuals and governing documents (and a subordinate provision in the rulebook that should really be relied on as informational only) implore the commissioner to complete all suspended games. Recognizing that mandate may not be feasible, commissioner Roger Goodell is allowed to cancel (wipe the result) or terminate (fix the result at suspension) if there aren’t other interteam competitive issues in doing so.
Since this has the appearance of a mandate, resuming the game in a “Week 19” and eliminating the bye week prior to the Super Bowl appeared to be the fix. This would mean the AFC playoff teams would have no certainty of what they were playing for in Week 18, plus the NFC top seed and the Chiefs (if they get the top AFC seed) would have a very unusual two-week break, unnaturally penalizing the top teams.
However, all options to resume the game created new inequities, which required to find the least restrictive option. The policy documentation vest the commissioner with the authority to cancel the suspended game, which he did. He could not take additional action to flatten out the inequities, as the policy manual indicates the playoff seeds would be determined by win percentage. The AFC North would automatically go to the Bengals (despite the Ravens possibly being within ½ game of the division title) and the Bills (and potentially the Bengals) could lose the #1 seed and home-field advantage by ½ game.
Because the overarching mandate is to lessen the competitive issues in the policies, any additional action by Goodell required a ⅔ vote. With the lingering competitive issues being being significant to stand as is, the policies cycle back to resuming the suspended game, which introduces competitive issues, creating an unbreakable paradox.
The precedent for owners to modify the playoffs is the action in the 1982 strike-shortened season, and the inaction in the 1987 and 2001 seasons. One cancelled week of games in 1987 and one rescheduled week of games in 2001 affected all teams fairly equally. The decision of the modified playoff structure in 1982 was hashed out by the Competition Committee and unanimously approved by owners. According to our partner site Quirky Research, a provision to have a Conference Championship doubleheader at the Superdome in New Orleans was not able to come to fruition due to a conflicting convention held by the National Audio Video Association.
There are still some rough edges to the proposal, which was approved by the owners with a number of owners voting no and abstaining.
- If the Ravens win Week 18, they would be within ½ game of the Bengals. If they both play a wild card game, the home field for that game would be determined by coin flip. Regular seeding will apply if they meet in the divisional playoffs or conference championships. This would happen if:
BAL beats CIN and LAC beats DEN.
- If the 2 conference championship teams are separated by ½ game (i.e., same number of losses, one off in wins), the AFC Championship Game would be played at a neutral site to be determined by the commissioner. This happens if the relevant teams advance to the conference championship:
- KC/BUF and in Week 18 KC and BUF win
KC/BUF and in Week 18 KC, BUF, and CIN lose KC/CIN and in Week 18 KC and BUF lose, and CIN wins
- A Bills-Bengals game would be played at the venue according to conference seeding, because both teams played an equal number of games.
Despite all of these provisions, playoffs are seeded normally and games are not affected except in the situations noted. The justification for these provisions departing from the established procedures was that the cancelled game did not affect which teams clinch a playoff berth, but it only affects the seeds.
While the NFL has a few provisions in its policy manual for these unusual cases where one or a few games are affected, there are other catastrophic plans that deal with continuity of a season if teams are involved in a calamity, such as an airplane crash. The details of those plans are extensive — involving grim calculations of casualties and restocking drafts — and are kept in other governing documents that are not widely disseminated.
This brings up a likely agenda item for the Competition Committee in the upcoming offseason: expanding the contingency plans for postponed, terminated, and canceled games. Care must be made to not constrict a future commissioner, but to provide a better menu of options in case of a localized situation that might occur at various stages of the season.