Each and every December, fans of NFL teams are thrown into a frenzy trying to figure out potential playoff scenarios for their teams . . . 1st round byes, playoff seeding, tiebreakers, wildcard berths, potential opponents or the chances of even getting into the playoffs based on the remaining regular season schedule. This has become an annual ritual we have all come to enjoy (or hate) as part of the NFL fan experience. But it wasn’t always this way.
It never ceases to amaze me that in 1920 when the league was founded, that this group of owners, entrepreneurs in their own right, failed to even address a basic ultimate competitive goal for the teams in the league. Sure, they decided to declare a Champion and that would be determined based on the season’s won / loss records but then failed to put in place even a simple definition of what constitutes a “season”.
Team owners were responsible for scheduling their teams games. They could schedule a game against any of the many independent teams around at that time but only games played against other NFL teams would count in the league standings. They also had the opportunity to designate a game as an “exhibition game” similar to what a boxing promoter would do. As a result, the league rules that were put in place were fraught with loopholes that begged for chicanery and shenanigans that often led to controversy. And it didn’t take long.
In 1921, only the second year of the league’s existence, the Buffalo All-Americans finished with 9-0-2 record. In second place were the Chicago Staleys with a 7-1-0 record at that time with the only loss to the All-Americans on Thanksgiving Day by a score of 7-6. Chicago owner, George Halas, then challenged Buffalo to a rematch. Buffalo owner, Frank McNeil, having already scheduled the team for an exhibition game against the Akron Pros for December 3rd agreed to the game on the condition that it was to be a “post-season exhibition game” and, as such, would not be counted in the season record nor in the standings. Keep in mind that the sole source of revenue back then was gate receipts so the thought of playing two exhibition games was simply added revenue and the game was scheduled for December 4th.
McNeil also had a number of players that he had purchased from soon to be defunct Detroit Heralds and had already agreed to release these players in order for them to play one last exhibition game under the Heralds banner against the Detroit Maroons. The Heralds / Maroons game was also scheduled to be played on December 4th, the same day as the All-Americans / Staleys game.
Buffalo defeated the Akron Pros 14-0 on December 3rd and then boarded an all night train for Chicago. The All-Americans took the field on December 4th with a depleted roster, still beat up and tired from the previous day’s game, after an all night train ride and lost 10-7. So now, if this had been a “real” game, the All-Americans record would have fallen to 9-1-2 and the Staleys record would have improved to 8-1-0 but Buffalo would have still had a 1/2 game lead in the standings (in the early years ties didn’t count).
But Halas saw an opportunity and proceeded to schedule two more regular season games – Dec 11th against the 4-1-3 Canton Bulldogs and Dec 18th against the 3-3-1 Chicago Cardinals. The Staleys defeated the Bulldogs 10-0 and improved to a 9-1-0 record, which now tied them with Buffalo, and had an additional game remaining. But the Cardinals threw a monkey wrench into Halas’ plan and played the Staleys to a scoreless tie keeping the Staleys record at 9-1-1 record tied with Buffalo. And this is where it gets interesting.
Halas declared that the title belonged to Chicago and began to lobby the other owners to award the Championship to the Staleys. His argument was that the second game against the All-Americans mattered more than the first and also pointed out that the aggregate score of the two games was 16-14 in favor of Chicago. McNeil continued to insist that his last two games were exhibition games and that the actual season record for Buffalo was 8-0-2. The owners, however, sided with Halas and awarded the 1921 Championship to the Staleys. Then, unbelievably, they went on to institute the first ever tie-breaker rule declaring that if two teams played more than once during a season, the second meeting would be worth more. (This rule, for obvious reasons, has since been removed.)
As a result of this controversy, the league was forced to define when the league’s season would end to prevent schedule “stretching” for the purpose of manipulating the season W/L record. Rather than have the season end on a particular date, they defined the season as a maximum number of games against other NFL teams. In 1924, when Chicago attempted to do the same thing again with a post-season match against the Canton Bulldogs, the league disallowed it and then went on to actually ban the use of post-season championship games. (More on the post-season ban later.)
The 1925 NFL Championship brought not one but two controversies. On December 6th, the Pottsville Maroons defeated the Chicago Cardinals 21-7, improved to 10-2-1 and dropped the Cardinals record to 9-2-1. With the win, the Maroons thought they had all but officially clinched the NFL title as they held a full game lead in the standings and had won the head-to-head matchup. Sounds logical, right? Not so fast . . .
Earlier in the year, the Frankford Yellow Jackets had scheduled a non-league exhibition game between the “top NFL team in the east” and the Notre Dame All-Stars (an independent team made up of former Fighting Irish players). At the time Frankford scheduled the game, they had just defeated the Maroons 20-0 and believed that they would, in fact, be the top NFL team in the east. However, two weeks later the Maroons defeated the Yellow Jackets and earned the right to play in the game against the Notre Dame All-Stars at the Maroon’s home field, Minersville Park.
Minersville Park was a high school field with a very low seating capacity and, as such, was too small for such a big event. So Pottsville rescheduled the game to be played at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, Philadelphia was in the Yellow Jackets territory and they protested the change of venue to the NFL Commissioner, Joseph Carr. Carr then warned the Maroons, in writing, that if they proceeded to play this game at Shibe Park, they would be suspended for violating Frankford’s territorial rights. Pottsville did, in fact, play the All-Stars at Shibe Field claiming that the league office had verbally approved the game during a telephone call. Their claim was to no avail though as the league proceeded to suspended Pottsville which prevented them from playing their last scheduled NFL game against the Providence Steam Roller (by the way, my all time favorite team name).
Meanwhile – back in Chicago, Cardinals owner Chris O’Brien scheduled two more games against the Milwaukee Badgers and the Hammond Pros. Both the Badgers and the Pros had already completed their seasons and had disbanded for the off season. Milwaukee was unable to pull their complete roster back together and hired four high school players in order to field a team and receive their split of the gate receipts. There are reports that a Cardinals player, Art Folz, had a hand in the hiring of the high schoolers in order to ensure an easy opponent for the Cardinals. The Badgers proved to be no match and the Cardinals trounced them 59-0.
Regardless of who hired them, the use of these high school players was clearly in violation of the NFL rules and after the game, upon hearing of the violation, the NFL heavily sanctioned both the Badgers and the Cardinals. The owner of the Badgers was forced to sell the team and the Cardinals were told that the NFL was considering that the game be removed from the record and resulting standings. In addition, Cardinals owner Chris O’Brien was fined $1,000 (almost $14,000 in today’s money). The Badgers were, in fact, sold and then folded a year later in 1926. But the NFL office never got around to revising the season’s results and the win over Milwaukee is still in the record books today. In fact, even the fine levied against O’Brien was rescinded.
The Cardinals went ahead and played the second of these two hastily scheduled games and defeated the Hammond Pros 13-0 resulting in a final season record of 11-2-1 one game better than the now suspended Pottsville Maroons and three games better than the third place Detroit Panthers. The NFL then went ahead and awarded the 1925 Championship to the Chicago Cardinals. Chris O’Brien refused to accept the title for his team stating that they did not deserve the title over a team that had beaten them fairly. The NFL said it would take another look at the issue later but they never did. Not until Charles Bidwill bought the Cardinals in 1933 did the team begin claiming the 1925 Championship.
Fast forward to 1932. Due to the Great Depression, NFL membership had dropped to only eight teams. The fewest in the history of the league. The Green Bay Packers finished the season with a record of 10-3-1 (.769 winning pct). But the league title was determined by winning percentage with ties omitted and the Chicago Bears finished at 6-1-6 (.857 winning pct) and the Portsmouth Spartans finished the year with a 6-1-4 record (.857 winning pct). None of the tie-breakers in place at the time applied so the NFL decided to scrap the 1924 ban on post-season championship games. The Bears and the Spartans would meet to determine the league champion. (You can read about the details of this game, which the Bears won 9-0, in my article “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime“.)
Because of the success of the 1932 NFL Playoff game, starting in 1933 the NFL aligned the teams in two conferences with the winner of each conference meeting for the NFL Championship. I had often wondered , if the teams’ life blood were gate receipts, why would the NFL ban the practice of playing an additional, potentially lucrative championship game? Then it dawned on me. It was the “Scottish Clan” mentality of the ownership group. By definition, only the two best teams would play in a championship game and, as such, only the two best teams would benefit from the added gate receipts as league wide revenue sharing wouldn’t come to be until much later (1960 to be exact). However, given the fact that NFL membership had shrunk to only eight teams and four of these eight teams ended up at .500 or better with one more team having simply a bad year, more than half of the owners felt they had a shot at the added revenue and the proposal to add the championship game was passed.
This was the beginning of the NFL playoff system we know today. No longer would the NFL Champion be declared by virtue of a team’s regular season won/loss record but rather by two teams on the field of play. The obvious problem now was this: were these the two best teams?
Hypothetically, because each team still scheduled their own games and the schedules were open ended, a team could schedule six home games against three of the league’s worst teams, jump out to a 6-0-0 start and then sit back and see how the other teams were doing. Realistically, this probably wouldn’t happen as teams depended entirely on gate receipts. But it came close a couple of times because schedules weren’t uniform nor were they balanced.
So beginning in 1937, the NFL league office assumed full control of all team schedules. At that point in time, the NFL had two conferences each with five teams. Each team would play its conference opponents twice and then play three of the other conference teams once under a year-to-year rotation resulting in an eleven game season with each team playing a relatively uniform strength of schedule.
The two conference alignment with each team playing eleven games per season remained in place through 1946 with one exception, during the war years (1943 – 1945), only ten games were scheduled. In 1947, the schedule was increased to twelve games per year and then increased again to fourteen games in 1961 partially due to competition with the new AFL but mostly attributed to the television contract negotiated by Pete Rozelle.
Then, in 1967, as part of the NFL/AFL merger and in preparation for a common schedule beginning with the 1970 season, the NFL realigned into two conferences with two divisions each (the Capitol and Century Divisions in the Eastern Conference and the Coastal and Central Divisions in the Western Conference). With this alignment, the playoff field expanded from two teams to four.
In 1970, the NFL realigned again as a result of the finalized merger with the AFL. At this point the NFL still had two conferences (the NFC and the AFC) and each conference had three divisions (East, Central and West). In order to balance the playoff structure, the Wild Card team was born and the playoff field now had eight teams vying for the league Championship.
Eight years later, in 1978, the schedule increased to the current sixteen games, a second Wild Card team was added to the playoff field (now up to ten teams) and the 1st round playoff bye was born. Round 1 pitted the two Wild Card teams against each other with the winner advancing to play the highest seeded divisional winner (two teams from the same division were not allowed to play each other in this “Divisional Round”). Those winners would then advance to play for the Conference championship and those two winners would advance to play in the Super Bowl for the NFL Championship.
The only deviation from this playoff format came in the strike shortened year of 1982. There were only nine regular season games played by the leagues’ twenty-eight teams. Because of the shortened regular season, Division standings were ignored and the sixteen teams with the best Won/Loss record at the end of the regular season were seeded 1 through 8 in each conference and an NCAA basketball like tournament was used to determine the Champion.
The 1978 format would remain in place until 1990 when a third Wild Card team in each conference was added (bringing the playoff field up to 12 teams). Then, as a result of expansion, each Conference was realigned in 2002 to have four divisions and the third Wild Card team was dropped keeping the playoff field at 12 teams.
So there you have it. There has been some discussion lately about the NFL expanding either or both the number of regular season games and the number of teams qualifying for the playoffs. The lines have been drawn by the fans both for and against each of these possibilities. But history has shown us that, regardless of whether one or both of these changes happen, we will still get our frenzy on come every December.