As the Super Bowl came to an end last night, I found myself upset. It was an odd feeling for me, one I wasn't expecting because I'm not a Patriots fan. I grew up outside Washington DC so I'm saddled with the inept Redskins, so it wasn't the Patriots losing that made me mad. As a Redskins fan, I have to dislike the Giants, an obligation I take seriously, but even the Giants happiness wasn't what fouled my mood.
What upset me was the destruction of the sanctity of the regular season. By any objective measure, the 9-7 Giants were not as good a team as the 13-3 Patriots. If it weren't for the fact that the Giants played in an inept division populated with inept teams (and I should know, I watched one of 'em every weekend) they'd have never been in the playoffs to begin with. The Patriots scored 119 more points than the Giants, and allowed 58 fewer. The Giants actually allowed more points than they scored this season. The Patriots were third in the NFL in point differential. The Giants were ninth... in the NFC. In the NFL they were 18th. By that one measure, the Super Bowl Champs were below the median, meaning more teams were better than the Champs than were worse. What does it say about the regular season of a sport whose crowned champion is not remotely close to the best team that season?
To me it says the regular season doesn't mean much at all. The playoffs have taken on a larger import over the past couple of decades in all sports, but if you think about it for a moment, given the random nature of small sample sizes, the regular season is the true measure of how good a team is. The playoffs give us a Champion but the regular season shows us who the best team is. The playoffs are for show.
Unlike most Americans, I'm not much for underdogs. I like the best team to win most of the time. To me, it means we weren't all wasting our time watching the regular season. Sure, it's fun sometimes in the NCAA men's basketball tournament when Donkey State beats Duke in the first round, but there's a reason I don't spend huge chunks of emotional energy on college basketball. As amazing as the athletes are, and as difficult as their chosen sport is, the outcome has a level of randomness that I'm not comfortable with.
Considering all the time and energy I put into following the Red Sox (and, sadly, the Redskins) the regular season should have weight. Playoffs should be an achievement for excellence in the regular season. Good teams should be rewarded for smart decisions and sustained good play while bad teams should be penalized. Coasting weakly through the schedule should not be rewarded with a chance at pro sports immortality.
Back in 2006 when the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series, I felt as I do now. Like now, it had nothing to do with any dislike of the team, its players, or the city of St. Louis (I've heard they have a very efficient highway system!). Instead, it had everything to do with the Cardinals winning 83 games and proving themselves to be, throughout the course of the most comprehensive regular season in pro sports, a mediocre baseball team undeserving of reaching the next level let alone being crowned World Series Champs. To this day, if you want to get my hackles up, mention that team.
Fun fact: the Cardinals have won two World Series in the last six years. The Red Sox have had an equal or better record and missed the playoffs in both those years.
I bring all this up mostly out of frustration. I don't have a grand solution to this problem of playoff prominence over a far more extensive and complete regular season, and even if I did it would stand the same chance of happening as I have of making it through next week without eating yummy delicious pizza.
I do think last night's game highlights a problem that the NFL isn't interested in hearing about though. But in a way, their version of the problem is much smaller. Professional baseball's version is much larger, angrier, and spittle-emitting. When you ask fans to come out to the ball park, spend hundreds of dollars on food, beer, and souvenirs not to mention parking and tickets, those thousands of games MLB is selling have to have some value. I mean, don't they? Or, maybe they don't. Would we all attend 162 Red Sox games at the same price if every team made the playoffs and the only thing up for grab was seeding and home field? It's unclear, but slowly, incrementally, that is the direction baseball is headed in. Another one of those steps in that direction is adding a new second Wild Card* team.
All professional sports leagues want more playoffs. Simply put, more playoffs equals more money. But, to believe in what they’re selling, to watch, to listen, and to attend hundreds of games a year, those games have to mean something. The way things are structured in the NFL now, the regular season simply cuts off the excessively unsuitable teams and leaves behind the good, the great, and the mediocre all in one hat. If baseball ever gets to that point, it'll turn the regular season into a six month long Spring Training. As wonderful as that sounds to my ears now, I know nobody wants it or, maybe more importantly, deserves it.