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Vic Carucci: No need for playoff expansion

PHILADELPHIA -- The NFL playoffs offer plenty of excitement and entertainment in their current form.

Members of the league's Competition Committee came to that realization during a conference call a couple weeks ago. Their 8-0 vote against a proposal to add playoff teams for the 2003 season looks as if it will be enough to convince owners that they don't even have to take a vote of their own on the subject before adjourning their meetings here on May 21.

And that can only be a good thing.

I concede that one can make a legitimate argument that adding an extra playoff team in each conference, thus creating two more playoff games, is a sound business idea. Two more filled stadiums and two more games on television translate into more revenue. Why would any NFL owner oppose that?

Simple. By looking into the not-too-distant future, one can make an equally legitimate argument that the short-term pursuit of more money could have negative long-term repercussions.

Extra teams only figure to dilute, rather than enhance, what is already one of the best and most attractive segments of the sporting schedule. The NFL playoffs generate a level of energy and anticipation that is unmatched by any other professional league. And that is largely because it is a fairly exclusive tournament that became even more exclusive last year when the NFL launched a 32-team season to accommodate the expansion Houston Texans.

With two more playoff teams, there is greater potential for clubs that finish the regular season at 8-8 to qualify as wild-card teams. Does being an 8-8 team automatically guarantee playoff embarrassment? Not necessarily. Could it very well prove to be stronger than a club with 10 or more victories? Absolutely.

However, a regular-season record is a reasonable gauge of judging a team's worthiness, or lack thereof. It is no more a stretch to see mediocrity in 8-8 than it is to see excellence in 12-4, which was the record of the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

When the league expanded to 32 teams and realigned for the 2002 season, owners decided to wait at least two seasons before addressing whether more playoff teams should be added. It has only been a year, but there seemed to be nothing blatantly unfair about the '02 postseason field. The right teams qualified, based on their regular-season finishes. For the most part, the games were exciting, especially on Wild Card Weekend.

"There are a lot of obstacles (to playoff expansion), but I think the biggest obstacle is uncertainty," Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen says. "We've gotten along really well with the six-team format in each conference. Obviously, we've added some teams and we have four divisions in each conference rather than three. What I'd like to see us do is wait a year or two, see how the playoffs develop, and make some decisions maybe later."

If it turns out that expanding the field eventually weakens the playoffs, it stands to reason that interest in the playoffs could follow the same course. Consequently, any immediate revenue increase it brings could not only decline as time goes on but perhaps lead to overall damaged interest in the most popular sport in America.

For now, it could very well be that NFL owners don't view it as a risk worth taking.

"I don't know whether we'll vote on it or not," Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. "Normally, when the competition committee unanimously opposes something that has competitive implications, we wouldn't vote. Here, it's kind of a mixture of a matter which has competitive implications as well as business implications.

"But I think it's quite clear there are a number of clubs, in addition to the competition committee, opposed to this, at least at this time. That being the case, a vote would be, I think, mostly going through the motions."

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