Does NFC West deserve playoff spot?

December 1, 2010

Since the NFL divvied itself into four-team subsets in 2002, there has never been a division-winning franchise with fewer than eight victories.

That could change this season, as the NFC West has won only 17 games combined, and currently is led by a couple of sub-.500 clubs. By comparison, the average number of victories by the first-place teams in the league's seven other divisions is a robust 7.7. No first-place team outside the NFC West has fewer than six wins.

"Pretty much a disgrace," assessed one veteran player this week, who spent most of his career in the NFC West, but now labors in another division. "But it's been that way, though, for a while now. I mean, it's not like (the NFC West) just got really bad this year or anything, right?"

Sure enough, the player was correct, and the NFC West didn't just morph in 2010 into the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.

Extrapolating the four teams' current records projects to only 25 total wins among all four teams. But the NFC West has actually won fewer aggregate games in each of the last two seasons — 24 last year and 22 in 2008. Since the NFL went to four-team divisions, the NFC West has averaged a league-worst 27.0 wins in eight seasons.

Only once, in 2003, have the NFC West teams combined for more than 30 wins. And that was the lone campaign in which the division managed a cumulative record of .500 or better. Just twice since 2002 has the division produced a champion with more than 10 victories.

What might make perceptions far worse this season is that all four clubs in the NFC West have been outscored and entering Week 13 has a combined point differential of minus-247. But the NFC West has twice since '02, in 2006 and 2004, had every one of its four teams outscored. In '04, the point differential was a horrific minus-306.

The division could yet exceed that figure this season, but the saving grace (relatively speaking) is that there remain five divisional games on the schedule, and someone has to win those contests. Unless, of course, there's a tie. Which, given the way the NFC West has gone in '10, is hardly out of the question.

Former NFL coach and current ESPN analyst coaching candidate) Jon Gruden suggested during Monday night's San Francisco-Arizona snoozer that the NFC West winner forfeit its automatic playoff berth. You know, sort of like the Big East voluntarily ceding its BCS spot to someone more deserving.

That isn't going to happen, of course, in either case. But it provided a jumping-off point for some debate about the NFC reconfiguring its current playoff procedure. The league has enough on its plate already, what with the 18-game schedule and all, but perhaps it is time to toss the playoffs into the discussions with the NFLPA, too, and add it to the bargaining points.

Sort of, you know, a global negotiating approach.

Because of geography, the league's moist blighted division isn't going to change anytime soon. Not, at least, until there's a franchise in Los Angeles. So maybe it's time to alter the criteria for postseason qualification.

Gruden, who generally talks out of both sides of his mouth, but typically isn't one to tweak the status quo, might actually be on to something.