While free agency moves dominate the headlines in the NFL, reports slipped under the radar this week that the league's competition committee would not issue a recommendation that would expand the NFL playoffs from six to seven or eight teams per conference. Mark Maske of the Washington Post reported on Tuesday that the committee would not endorse the expansion plan, then later added clarification from a source that they were not asked to rule either way on the matter.
Public outcry over the increased safety hazards of a potential 18-game season put that proposal on the backburner, but discussion over an expanded postseason format has picked up steam over the past year. The competition committee was expected to issue an up-or-down vote on the matter in advance of league meetings next week in Phoenix. Maske cited a source who said a report on the issue was expected, and that the committee was not likely to endorse the expansion plan. While the proposal was discussed, Maske later supplemented his report with another source who said that the committee issued no ruling either way.
The plan called for either seven or eight teams to make the postseason in each conference, eliminating the first-round bye(s) for the top finishers in each. The preseason would also likely be reduced if this plan were to go through. Compared to an expanded regular season, it's certainly a more appealing proposal to the NFLPA from a player safety perspective. But as Maske noted, league approval (yay votes from 24 of 32 teams) is not likely unless the competition committee first recommends the plan.
While the proposal includes a likely reduction of the preseason slate, it's unclear whether it would actually increase the length of the postseason. If the plan is to simply take away the byes from one (or both) of the top two seeds, then the postseason would conceivably continue to cover a five-week period, with an extra week between the conference championships and the Super Bowl.
The 18-game regular season is a fairly one-sided issue (resounding disapproval) at this point, but there's an argument to be made for both sides of an expanded playoffs debate. The NFL, which can credit a portion of its popularity to parity, would be opening up the chase for a postseason spot and increasing interest in the final month to even more fanbases on an annual basis. On the other side is the reduced importance of the regular season with potentially half the league's teams, and some mediocre ones at that, making the playoffs. It would lessen the value of winning your division, putting players of the best teams at further injury risk with another postseason game. For now, all expansion talks for the country's most popular sport appear to be off the table.
Chop blocks chopped?
One proposal that is not on hold, however, is a recommendation for penalizing low chop blocks on defenders inside the tackle box. According to multiple reports, all nine members of the competition committee were in favor of penalizing the peel-back blocks. The controversy around the play was ignited by the season-ending injury suffered by Brian Cushing, who called for increased attention to plays made against defenders to add to the wave of recent regulations imposed on defenders for dangerous hits.
Jarrett Bell of USA Today reported that the competition committee also seeks to penalize low and blindside blocks that occur outside the tackle box. Several defensive players around the league expressed frustration along with Cushing, and it became clear early on in the 2012 season that those blocks would be an issue addressed by the league this offseason. With the committee's approval now in hand, the league should vote on this measure next week at the Phoenix meetings.
The strain of similarity between the expanded playoff schedule and the blocking penalties (and really, every NFL issue now) is player safety. It's that constant question that's raised early in any debate over changing the league in any material way, and will continue to be the most important charge of the competition committee every offseason.