For a brief moment, all was right in the world. Then the news broke on Monday that the Miami Marlins reported 13 cases of COVID-19 throughout the clubhouse. The Marlins have postponed several games and are currently stranded in Philadelphia. The prospect of MLB continuing as planned is questionable, as the outbreak within the Marlins dugout jeopardizes the entire 2020 season.
It also should cause alarm among NFL fans hopeful for a new season. If MLB, which has smaller rosters, more space between players, and minimal contact between teams, has an outbreak after three games, the concept of an NFL season is less than likely.
But let’s keep this series more along the hypothetical optimism that allows us to believe in football in 2020. Even with the news from the MLB, NFL front offices appear unfazed in their commitment to a season, so we will too.
Option Three – NBA-Style Six Hub Cities
Forget everything you know about the NFL. The most radical of the options mentioned in the prior weeks, in this scenario NFL would designate six cities as “hubs”. This is similar to the NBA system and would localize all games geographically. Most importantly, NFL divisions and conferences would be thrown out the window to prioritize geographic location.
The cities below have been chosen not only for their geographic location, but physical ability to host five or six entire teams. The six divisions would be as follows:
I must respond to the inevitable “Why Dallas and not Houston, you unfaithful swine” reaction. To that, I say, “There’s a reason they call it ‘Jerry WORLD.” The DFW area could host several teams, while NRG Park is truly the only complex able to host a NFL team (sorry, Cougar fans). Unless Houston can miraculously renovate the Astrodome in the next few weeks, Dallas is geographically and structurally a better choice in this exercise.
Here’s where it gets tricky: Since the 2002 season, the NFL has enjoyed even divisions and simple scheduling rules. Before the current era, there were three divisions in the AFC and NFC, each consisting of five teams (except the AFC Central, which had six teams). This option sort of pays homage to the pre-Texans era, but unearths several of the problems of three-division conferences. Scheduling would be a challenge, as some hubs have five teams and some have six.
Schedule for five-team hubs:
This is the more straightforward of the two schedules. Technically, there is no home-and-away since the teams all play at one central location. Each team plays two games against the other four teams in the division. It’s a fair and concise way to go about an abbreviated schedule.
Schedule for six-team hubs:
Out of the all three scenarios, this is the stickiest situation. This works well under a twelve-game schedule, but we’ve decided to live in this alternate reality, so we’re sticking with it *bangs coffee mug on counter like a gavel*. In order to maintain consistency, each team would play the other five teams once and play three teams twice. I know, this is finicky, and I would love to hear your solutions in the comments.
The other option would be for the two six-team divisions to have several inter-division games, but the entire reason for a hub system is to limit travel between cities. To expose an entire team to a different city only for them to come back and expose their own teams is counter-intuitive. Don’t tell MLB that.
Under a conference-less NFL, there won’t be a natural separation of teams to determine a champion. At this stage, it will be a one-bracket playoff.
- The Super Bowl will remain in Tampa Bay.
- Teams will be seeded 1-16 similar to the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
- Seeds will be determined by record. Since there are no head-to-head match-ups and strength of schedule will be nullified, strength of victory will unfortunately be the best remaining decider.
- The top two teams from the five-team divisions and the top three teams from the six-team divisions will make the NFL Playoffs.
- The team with the best remaining record in the five-team divisions will be the wild card.
NFL fans should embrace an open field of opponents. No more “The AFC is better than the NFC” or vice-versa. Unique playoff match-ups would elevate the games, and hopefully for the Texans, the road to the Super Bowl wouldn’t have to go through Baltimore or Kansas City.
That said, the Dallas hub would appear to be quite daunting. Houston would have to play two other division winners from 2019, a talented Dallas Cowboys team, and a Broncos squad that embarrassed them at NRG Stadium last season. In an eight game schedule, I could see the Texans mustering just four wins. That may not be enough to qualify for the postseason. But as mentioned earlier, I would suspect the NFL raise the number of teams who make the playoffs from 12 to 16. Two games against Dallas would be enjoyable for the fan base, while rematches against the Broncos, Chiefs, and Saints would certainly motivate the roster.
Even though NFL owners are adamant about a full season, it simply may not be in their control. With training camp underway and the season on the horizon, who knows what the coming weeks will entail for sports?