Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Playing the What If game: NFL Realignment

As some of you may have heard, recently Gary Bettman (NHL Commissioner) put forth a plan for realignment of the National Hockey League from the current 6 divisions with 5 teams format to a format with 2 divisions of 8 teams and 2 divisions of 7 teams. The NHL's logic behind the realignment is to have divisions roughly based on geography. The main driving force have been teams like Detroit and Columbus that are in the Eastern time zone but play in the Western Conference. The NHL would likely move one or both of them into the Eastern Conference should Bettman's realignment plan go through.

There have also been talks about realigning Major League Baseball as well, and as we all know, College Football is in the midst of an upheaval that we probably haven't seen the end of, which has led to Utah and Colorado moving to the Pac 12, Nebraska moving to the Big Ten, and TCU moving to the Big East.

So that got me thinking: what if the NFL decided to jump on the bandwagon and realign the league based on geography. Now, the NFL's history is not one of using geographic logic in determining divisional alignment. Let's not forget we're not very far removed from a league that had Indianapolis in the AFC East, Jacksonville in the AFC Central, Arizona and Dallas in the NFC East, Tampa Bay in the NFC Central, and New Orleans and Atlanta in the NFC West.

Of course this is all just a fun little mental activity to pass the time during the lockout. This has no real bearing on anything that might actually happen.

Before I throw out my crazy idea though, I've gotta give a shout-out to my boys over at Blitzburgh Blog, who were a little quicker on the keyboard than me and got their Realignment Plan posted this afternoon.

I'll be the first to admit, the NFL gives heavy consideration to historic rivalries when drawing divisional lines. However, for the purposes of this post, I'm going to blow up the AFC/NFC split and treat every team as it exists in an attempt to come up with a geographic-centric alignment for the NFL.

Even though the NFL is currently in an 8-division/4-team alignment, I'm flipping that on its head and going with the NHL model of 4 divisions with 8 teams per division.

Union Division

Let's be honest, this division is STACKED. With New England, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philadelphia, the Giants, and the Jets, there are 6 legitimate contenders in this division in any given year. This might be too much strength in one division, but man would divisional games be fun. Pittsburgh loses the Ohio rivalries, but they haven't been overly competitive lately anyways. Plus, Pittsburgh gains the Keystone rivalry with Philly and the chance to spark a football rivalry with Washington, a city we already hate in hockey. Baltimore and Washington playing the Beltway Rivalry on a yearly basis, plus having the New York/Boston rivalries makes this a great division top-to-bottom.

Dixieland Division

From a rivalry standpoint, there isn't much exciting about this division, but the potential Florida rivalries between Tampa, Miami, and Jacksonville are cool. The NFC and AFC South divisions are mostly kept together here, with the addition of Miami to replace Indianapolis.

Great Lakes Division

I'm going to be honest. As a football purist, I love this division. This puts back together a lot of old NFL teams back together while preserving some great NFC North rivalries and introducing the Ohio rivalries into the mix. Indianapolis and St Louis seem like great fits for this division geographically and would easily be able to form rivalries with a lot of the other teams here.

Wild West Division

Even though I named the divisions because I like American History, this division really is the Wild Wild West. The one benefit of splitting up the Texas teams was being able to reunite Dallas with former NFC East foe Arizona and give them the opportunity to rekindle the 90s rivalry with San Francisco. Seattle gets reunited with former AFC West compatriots while Oakland and San Francisco's natural rivalry will add some heat to the middle of this division. The jury is still out if more than 2 teams in this division can put together a winning record in any given year though.

Now, the NFL isn't a league that's about to just up and change things on a whim. Heck, they stuck with the 6 division format until 2002 when they literally ran out of places to put Houston and had their hand forced into moving into the current 8-division format. In all honesty, the current NFL alignment with 8 divisions of 4 teams works perfect and I wouldn't change it.

However, for speculation's sake, let's say something happens that forces the NFL's hand into realigning divisions. 

This could be any number of mitigating factors, but there is one current undercurrent that is the dark side of the NFL: television blackouts. The way it works is if the stadium doesn't sell out, the game is blacked out in the local tv market. Teams across the country have been hurt by blackouts but there is one team that stands above the rest. Part of the problem that team faces is having to fill a college stadium with NFL fans watching a mediocre team.

Yep, I'm looking at you Jacksonville. 

Of course, they haven't been the worst franchise in the league over the past decade and a half, but their owners have to be looking at their bottom line and getting a little worried. Of course, there's always the second largest market in America just waiting for an NFL team...

...especially since their team of professional athletes is on probation for the next 10 years.

Therefore, let's say for purposes of this exercise, the straw that breaks the camels back and forces the NFL to realign is the movement of the Jaguars franchise to Los Angeles.

This would be an easy change for the above proposal. It would see the Jaguars move from the "Dixieland" Division to the Wild West and Dallas move from the Wild West to the Dixieland to join Houston, reuniting the Texas teams.