Discover more from Econ Soapbox
NFL as EPL
What would happen if American Football followed European Soccer?
“Ties and no playoffs… Why do you even do this?
- Ted Lasso
The English Premier League (EPL) is the top-flight league in the English football system and is arguably the best soccer/football league in the world. It represents the crème of the crop of world soccer, with international superstars from around the globe taking the pitch every week. Until recently, however, the EPL was not popular in the United States. In fact, you couldn’t even watch it on TV without a very expensive cable package. That changed when NBC started airing EPL games (a commercial for which is the origin of Ted Lasso).
As an American, there are a lot of things to dislike about soccer. There isn’t enough scoring, before video review having just three referees on such a large field made no sense, and penalty kicks are way too decisive to be the punishment for breaking a rule. Additionally, EPL regular season games are allowed to end in a tie, and there aren’t any playoffs.
At first, I was inclined to agree with the Coach Lasso quote at the top of this essay. Ties? No playoffs? What’s the point? That said, the EPL has a certain appeal to it. Each year 20 teams play every other team in a home-and-home series. That means each team plays 38 games, and faces every other team at home and away. There aren’t any playoffs because there don’t have to be. There’s no such thing as strength of schedule or having a tough division or anything like that. In some ways, it’s the purest way to decide a champion. Getting hot or cold at the end of the season doesn’t totally decide how a team is viewed. It’s actually not a bad system.
To that end, I started to wonder, what would happen if the NFL didn’t have playoffs, or even a Super Bowl? What if the team with the highest winning percentage was declared NFL Champion at the end of the year. What would be the best historic teams? I determined the “NFL Regular Season Champion” for every season (see below), and ranked the teams by number of championships. I started with the 1966 season, which was the first year the Super Bowl was played.
This was done by taking the team with the highest winning percentage, and then using the following tiebreaks: point differential, and if two teams are still tied, points scored. Now there are two massive caveats to this exercise. First, unlike the EPL, every NFL team does not play every other NFL team. In fact, every NFL team will play their divisional opponent twice while not playing other teams at all. So unlike the EPL, one team being 12-4 is not the same as another team being 12-4. Second, there is no prize for having the highest winning percentage. Often, teams in the final week have nothing to play for, so playoff-bound teams will rest their starters and not care about the final game, which could cause them to lose the “NFL Regular Season Championship”.
So. THIS IS JUST FOR FUN. I’m not saying that a team with the best winning percentage should replace the Super Bowl Champion or anything like that. This was just a fun experiment comparing the NFL to the EPL. Clearly if being the regular season champion meant anything, teams would play differently.
Below is the table of year-by-year winners and then the table showing wins by team. Afterwards I have some comments.
Some interesting notes when looking at the Regular Season (RS) Champions.
The teams with the most RS Championships are the San Francisco 49ers (7), the New England Patriots (6), and the Oakland Raiders (4). Then a bunch of teams has 3 Regular Season Championships.
My Chicago Bears have two Regular Season Championships, the year they won the Super Bowl and the year after.
The 2007 New England Patriots are the greatest team in NFL history. 16-0 in the regular season. An astonishing 315-point differential. People will forever proclaim that because they lost to the New York Giants on the last drive of the Super Bowl they can’t be the best team ever. That’s absolute nonsense. That team dominated unlike any other has before or since.
From 1966 to 1996, it was fairly normal for the Regular Season Champion to also be the Super Bowl Champion. That relationship, however, has totally broken down since then. After 1997, only the Patriots have been both the Regular Season Champion and Super Bowl Champion, and they’ve done it three times. The Philadelphia Eagles were one point away from being Regular Season Champion during their Super Bowl winning 2017 season, but even giving them credit means only four teams in the last 25 years have won both championships. Before 1997, 16 of the 31 Regular Season Champions were also Super Bowl Champions. That’s an astonishing shift.
My first thought as to the cause of the shift was that playoff expansion made it harder to win the Super Bowl. The NFL playoffs are slightly bigger today, but in either case, a top seed still only has to play three games, so that wouldn’t affect the Regular Season Champion.
A more likely culprit is the salary cap, which went into effect in 1994. By making it much more difficult for teams to stack themselves with talent and buy a Super Bowl, they’ve made the playoffs more unpredictable.
Overall, the number of Regular Season and Super Bowl Champions are fairly well aligned, with a correlation coefficient of 0.71. The biggest shocker is the New York Giants, who have never been the Regular Season Champion yet have four Super Bowl rings. Several Teams have two Regular Season Championships but have yet to win a Super Bowl.
Should the NFL move to an EPL system? Given the 32 teams in the league, it’s impractical to expect each team to play 61 games, so a home-and-home style system is definitely out. Even playing every other team once would make for a massive 31-game season. So playoffs it is. At the same time, it might be nice to have some sort of prize for the best regular season team.