NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recently floated the idea of expanding the playoffs. Hopefully the idea won't float for long and will sink to the bottom of the Sea of Bad Ideas, coming to rest between Fox's glowing hockey puck and "Let's hire Isiah Thomas!" Goodell suggested the NFL could go from its current 12-team format to 14 or even 16 teams. That would boost revenue, but it would damage the quality of the regular season and the value of a playoff berth.
The current format rewards excellence: The top two teams in each conference get a first-weekend bye. A 16-team playoff would eliminate those byes and reward mediocrity instead. Along with the 9--7, 8--8 and even 7--9 teams making the playoffs, a bunch of 5--8 teams would be "in the playoff picture" in early December.
Giving more teams a chance sounds as if it would increase suspense. But it would actually decrease it. The best teams would clinch earlier than they do now, and with a 16-team playoff, they wouldn't even be playing for a bye. (They would still have a chance at home field advantage, but that is not as important.) Entering Week 15 this year, the Jets were a 6--8 train wreck that had benched its quarterback, Mark Sanchez, for being awful. With a 16-team playoff the Jets would have been the No. 8 seed in the AFC. If you think that is reasonable, you haven't watched the Jets. Their best offensive play is calling timeout.
Adding playoff teams also would make it more likely that the final playoff spots would be decided by a tiebreaker. Last year the eighth spot in the AFC would have come down to the 8--8 Jets, 8--8 Raiders or 8--8 Chargers. The world does not need more tiebreakers between mediocre football teams.
In the NBA and the NHL, 16 of 30 teams make the playoffs. But those leagues rely more on playoff revenue than the NFL, and anyway, what kind of models are they? The NBA regular season is more about entertainment than competition, and the NHL playoffs are so filled with upsets that the best team rarely wins.
The NFL regular season has the right rhythm to it. In September, almost every team thinks it has a chance. By October, we know who is horrible, but 80% of the league can still believe. By late November, we have a true playoff race: 20 or so teams fighting for 12 spots, and 10 of them fighting for those first-round byes. By the end of December, a few spots are still undetermined and we're ready for the most popular postseason in American pro sports.
Goodell's job is to make our most successful league even more successful. But expanding the playoffs is not the way to do it.