All-in playoff fiscally responsible, competitively irresponsible
So you're saying there's a chance…
Let's remember that the dearly departed San Jose SaberCats were beaten one time and one time only in the 2015 regular season. That loss came to the then 1-9 LA KISS at home at the SAP Center. That LA team finished out the regular season at 4-14.
Sure, in June, that game didn't really mean a damn thing to anyone. The KISS still didn't make the playoffs, and the SaberCats merely had a blemish in what otherwise was the best season in the history of the AFL.
But what if that happens again in August of 2016?
On Thursday, the AFL announced that all eight teams will get into the playoffs for the first time in league history. The winner of each conference in the regular season will take one of the top two seeds, guaranteeing itself an easier first round matchup and theoretically, a pair of home games to get to the ArenaBowl. The other teams will be seeded 3-8 by record regardless of conference affiliation.
The AFL is a crazy enough game as it is. The last thing that we needed was to render the regular season completely useless by letting all eight teams into the playoffs. If that LA game happens again this year in August instead of in June, the best team in the league could be sent packing on a couple screwy bounces like only this game can produce.
For my money, one of the sadder moments in the history of this league came when the 7-9 Columbus Destroyers in 2007 beat the 15-1 Dallas Desperados. I guess one could say that at 7-9, Columbus at least was competitive and better than a lot of teams in an 18-team league, and it had to play one extra game in the playoffs, whereas the top four teams all received a bye. Still, that game was a harsh reminder what can happen when an overmatched team gets a couple breaks like Columbus did with successive bar balls in the third quarter of that game.
It isn't unprecedented for the AFL to let a lot of teams into the playoffs. In 1987, there were only four teams, so two of the four had to play in the ArenaBowl. In 1988, four of the six teams made the postseason. In 1989, four of the five got into the playoffs, though that was following just a four-game regular season in which most of the games were played in neutral site venues instead of home arenas. The next year in 1990, four of the six teams got into the playoffs, while in 1993, eight of the 10 teams got into the postseason, which gave us the 3-9 Dallas Texans getting into the playoffs. The TNN years in the early-2000s featured 12-team playoffs, many of which came in years which there were 16 teams in the league.
Even back in those TNN years though, the regular season meant SOMETHING. Get a Top 4 seed, you get an extra week off for your troubles. Go 3-11, and you're not going to make the tournament. Besides, many of those teams with the 6-8 and 5-9 records worked themselves out in the first round, leaving just half of them to fight it out in the second stage of the postseason.
If the AFL really cared about its competition here and was insistent that all eight teams should be in the playoffs, the schedule should've been cut back to 14 games instead of 16, and then gone really radical for the playoffs. Let 5 host 8 and 6 host 7. Let the 5/8 winner visit 3 and the 6/7 winner visit 4 in the second round. Then let the 3/5/8 winner visit #2 and the 4/6/7 winner visit #1 for the right to go to the ArenaBowl. At that point, the regular season means something.
But we all know why this was put into play. It doesn't take investigative work to know what's going on here. An eight-team playoff guarantees that four of the eight teams in the league are guaranteed nine home games, the same number of home games they sold season tickets for as early as last June or July. If the league didn't play an 18-game schedule again, owners would have to cough back up money to their season ticket holders for a ninth home game which was never played.
Furthermore, with Commissioner Scott Butera confirming to ArenaFan.com that the playoff will be bracketed instead of reseeded, we're two road team upsets in the first round of the playoffs away from one other team getting that coveted ninth game as well, as unlikely as that seems at this time.
Part of the pitch that was always made about the longer regular season and the fact that more teams were in the playoff discussion deeper into the season. Unfortunately, now the regular season literally means nothing beyond seeding in a tournament where anything can and will happen.
Literally, if I'm the Arizona Rattlers, Philadelphia Soul or Jacksonville Sharks, I'm putting Nick Davila, Dan Raudabaugh and Tommy Grady in bubble wrap and not letting them on the field for the first time this year until just before the start of the playoffs. There's just no sense in putting your quarterback into a position where he might get hurt when difference between going perhaps 12-4 with him and 8-8 without him is home or away for two games. You still have to beat the same teams to win the ArenaBowl anyway, and as Jacksonville proved last season, you can win road games to reach the summit. So why risk it?
Last year, I heard more than a few people say that the 2015 season was a bridge to get to bigger and brighter for 2016. Unfortunately, 2016 is now also going to be a bridge to get to 2017. With the promise of new teams in Mexico and at least a couple more teams coming in with NBA/NHL ownership ties, at least 2017 has some promise to it.
But we've got to get there first.
For 18 weeks in the spring and summer, we're going to see players put their bodies on the line in the sport we all love, but the fact of the matter is that these 64 games will be the most meaningless 64 in the history of the league. It may as well be a 16-game preseason.
The whole 2016 season may as well not even start until August, because that's the first time anything is going to matter.