Forde: United we stand, in divisions we fall

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Duane Forde
8/8/2014 9:03:20 PM
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One evening, a man was making a roast beef dinner for his family. After watching him cut the ends off of the raw slab of meat before placing it in a roasting pan, his wife asked why he had done that.

"That's the way my mother always did it," he replied.

A few weeks later, at a family gathering, the woman observed her mother-in-law preparing a roast the exact same way.

The wife asked her, "Why do you cut the ends off of the roast before you cook it?" The mother-in-law had the same response as her son.

"That's the way my mother always did it," she said. Conveniently, the husband's maternal grandmother also happened to be at this family function.

Her curiosity now piqued, the woman approached the grandmother and said, "Your daughter and your grandson both said they learned how to prepare a roast from you. May I ask you why you cut the ends off of the roast before you cook it?" The grandmother looked at her and laughed. "When I was raising my family", she explained, "I only had one roasting pan and it was very small. Sometimes I had to cut the ends off of the roast to make it fit."

The point of the story is that you occasionally have to ask yourself whether your approach to a particular task actually makes sense or if you're just blindly doing it "the way it has always been done". The CFL's divisional format falls into the latter category. Established before World War II, when the Grey Cup was actually contested between the champions of two completely separate leagues from different parts of the country (the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union and the Western Interprovincial Football Union) it's not the right method for determining playoff seedings in today's CFL.

My stance on this issue isn't new and has absolutely nothing to do with the West Division's early season dominance. The only relevance of the current standings is that they provide a perfect opportunity to illustrate some of the reasons why the present system is far from ideal.

At the conclusion of Weeks 5 and 6, the league's five best win-loss records have belonged to West Division teams...and Week 7 won't change that.

Don't get sucked into the idea that teams' records will even out as the season progresses. A significant portion of that will occur not because the gap between the divisions will close but rather due to the increase in intradivision (East vs. East and West vs. West) games late in the season.

The number of remaining divisional matchups dictates that, barring ties, the East teams combined will win a minimum of thirteen more games this season and the West teams combined will lose at least eighteen more times. That said, it's still entirely possible in terms of both mathematics and actual on-field outcomes that the final standings could favour the West as much as they do right now.

The crossover rule doesn't come close to resolving the issue, as it only addresses divisional imbalances between lower ranked (3rd and 4th place) teams.

It completely ignores imbalances occurring in the top half of the divisions (1st and 2nd place), thus creating at least two problems. First, it potentially gives the fourth place or "crossover" team in a given division an easier path to the Grey Cup than the second and third place teams in its division.

This year's standings demonstrate this scenario perfectly, as the second place team in the West would have to beat two teams with winning records in order to reach the Grey Cup while the fourth place team in the West would compete in a playoff bracket with two sub-.500 East Division teams.

The other issue is that, although the crossover creates the possibility of two teams from the "stronger" division meeting in the Grey Cup, it only allows for that possibility if one of the finalists is the fourth place finisher.

The other major hole in the crossover rule was created by the addition of a ninth team. As a result, contrary to popular belief, the rule no longer guarantees that the top six regular season teams make the playoffs, as it did when there were two four-team divisions. With only one crossover spot available, the rule fails to account for the possibility that has taken shape so far this year, which is the fourth and fifth place teams in the West both having better records than the second place team in the East.

Some people will argue that abandoning the divisional playoff format could lead to fans in given markets losing interest if their respective teams fall out of the playoff race early. I would contend that fan interest in any given CFL team tends to be more of a function of the team's market than its win-loss record.

In 1996 and '97, the Toronto Argonauts posted back-to-back 15-3 seasons and won the Grey Cup both years. Their lineup featured both the best player ever to play in the CFL (Doug Flutie) and the undisputed most popular player in franchise history (Michael "Pinball" Clemons) yet there was no spike in the club's attendance during that time.

On the other hand, in the 21 seasons from 1982 through 2002, the Saskatchewan Roughriders posted just three winning seasons, but I dare say that fan interest in the franchise never waned. I would also argue that the fans who grow disillusioned with a team that's 2-12 in late September would feel that way regardless of whether or not they still have a mathematical chance of making the playoffs.

Furthermore, if a team loses fans late in the season because they're not competitive or not entertaining then that organization should strive to improve the on-field product and game day experience. The CFL shouldn't risk watering down its playoffs simply because it's afraid to force its clubs to "try harder" or "do better". I'll discuss that concept more a little later in the article.

The most common argument against scrapping the divisional format is the "tradition" of the Grey Cup pitting East vs. West. Make no mistake. I love most of the CFL's traditions, from rivalry games on Labour Day weekend and Thanksgiving Day doubleheaders to Calgary's touchdown horse, the Melonheads in Saskatchewan, and Hamilton's many generations of Pigskin Pete, but sometimes tradition is just a more tolerated way of saying, "That's the way my mother always did it."

East vs. West meant something in 1936.

Seventy-eight years ago, the country was divided based on geography, lifestyle, industry, and politics. To each other, Eastern Canada and Western Canada represented the unknown. That, along with their perceived differences made them natural rivals and the Grey Cup was symbolic of that.

In the twenty-first century, however, courtesy of airline travel, cable television, and the internet, among other advances, there is no mystery and, in most circles, no rivalry.

I have played in, attended, and/or covered every Grey Cup game since 1998 and I refuse to believe that the fan interest and passion require an East vs. West matchup.

The 2007 game, which featured Saskatchewan and Winnipeg, speaks to that, as Winnipeg represented the East in name only, just as they have done in five other well-attended and well-watched Grey Cup games.

The traditions that CFL fans deserve are a Grey Cup game between the two best and most worthy teams, and the opportunity to occasionally see the CFL's fiercest rivalries contested on the league's biggest stage.

For the players and coaches who toil and sacrifice to reach The Big Game, the value of doing so shouldn't be diminished by a system that potentially allows one finalist to get there "by default".

In case you still don't see why there's no valid reason to maintain the status quo, let's discuss the flaws that make it necessary to get rid of the current two-division system.

FLAW #1: "Neither the schedule format nor the size of the league suit a division-based playoff system."

In sports, the sole reason for keeping standings during the regular season is to determine seedings for the playoffs. If a league's playoff system is based on divisions or conferences then the majority of each team's regular season games should be played within its division or conference. In other words, a team should play the majority of its games against the teams with whom it is directly competing for a playoff position. This makes the regular season games considerably more meaningful as they have far greater bearing on playoff races.

For example, in the National Hockey League, where the Eastern and Western Conferences have separate playoff brackets, teams play 61% of their regular season games within their own conference. In the National Basketball Association, which features a similar playoff format, clubs play 63% of their games within their conference.

In the National Football League, where the AFC and NFC have separate playoff brackets, intraconference matchups account for 75% of a team's regular season games, while Major League Baseball teams play 88% of their games within their own league, with the AL and NL each having its own playoff bracket.

In contrast, the CFL plays what is best described as a "balanced schedule", with each team playing a home game and a road game against each of the other eight franchises to account for sixteen of their eighteen regular season games.

While the two remaining games are played within the division, this format still sees each club in the four-team East Division play only 44.4% of its games against East Division opponents. In other words, they play the majority of their games against teams that have little bearing on their playoff position. I'll reiterate that, if the regular season schedule isn't weighted towards divisional play, then playoff positions shouldn't be based on divisional standings.

Here's another way to look at it. Regardless of which division a CFL team is in, that team will play 44.4% of its regular season games (8 out of 18) against East Division teams and 55.5% of its games (10 out of 18) against West Division opponents. In other words, every team essentially faces the exact same competition and has equal "strength of schedule".

Extrapolate this year's six-week standings over the full season and you'll have Toronto at 6-12 getting a first round bye and a home playoff game and B.C. at 9-9 not even making the playoffs. That can be justified if they've played the majority of their respective regular season schedules against different opponents but it doesn't make a shred of sense when they have faced identical competition. A league that doesn't differentiate between divisions for scheduling purposes absolutely should not differentiate between divisions for playoff purposes.

The CFL could theoretically correct this flaw by either (a) changing its schedule format to ensure that each team plays at least 60% (11 out of 18) of its regular season games within its division or by (b) staying with the balanced schedule and scrapping the divisional playoff format. Changing the scheduling formula wouldn't significantly impact clubs in the five-team West Division, as they would still face each of their four divisional rivals either two or three times during the regular season, exactly as they do now.

However, in the East, it would mean that each team would have four regular season meetings per year against two of the other three East Division teams. Suddenly, you're looking at almost half (44.4%) of every East team's schedule being played against just two opponents. That doesn't even take into account the likelihood of facing those same two teams for a fifth and sixth time in the same year, in the preseason and playoffs. In the nine-team CFL, maintaining the balanced schedule and scrapping the divisions is clearly the best option.

FLAW #2: "The East-West playoff system devalues the regular season."

One of the common criticisms of the CFL from casual fans is that "the regular season doesn't matter because everybody makes the playoffs." It's an exaggeration but the point is still valid. The NHL and NBA both use their regular seasons to disqualify 47% of their teams (14 out of 30) from postseason play.

The NFL's regular season eliminates 62.5% of the teams (20 out of 32) from the playoff picture. At the conclusion of the MLB regular season, 67% of the teams (20 out of 30) go home. The CFL's regular season, on the other hand, only eliminates 33% (3 out of 9) of its teams, making regular season outcomes less meaningful.

I understand and support the CFL's reasons for having six teams in the playoffs but regular season games would be more meaningful if the system at least guaranteed that (a) the two teams getting first round byes were the teams possessing the two best regular season records and (b) the three teams excluded from the playoffs were the teams with the three worst regular season records. Again, even with the crossover rule in place, the division-based system doesn't create those assurances.

With regard to the top teams, it should be noted that, in six of the last eight years, the two best records in the league have belonged to teams in the same division. That means that 75% of the time over that period, the playoff system has ruled out any possibility of the CFL's two best regular season teams meeting for the Grey Cup.

FLAW #3: "The current playoff format allows teams to strive for mediocrity rather than forcing them to aim for excellence."

You've probably heard the joke about the two hikers who encounter an angry bear. As the grizzly eyes them up, one of them asks the other, "What should we do?" His friend replies, "Run!" The first guy says, "...But we'll never be able to outrun a bear!" His buddy responds, "I don't have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you." This "Don't Be Last" attitude is fine when escaping large carnivorous mammals but professional sports franchises should be expected, if not forced, to aim higher. Philosophically, however, the CFL's current playoff system enables teams to qualify for the playoffs simply by "not being last".

Consider the question, "Why are the teams in the West Division better than the teams in the East?" The answer is, "Because they have to be"

You see, as it relates to the aforementioned joke, the teams in the East don't have to "outrun the bear" to have a chance to get to the Grey Cup. They just have to outrun their slow-footed friends. Ignore the crossover for a moment and look at the base playoff qualification standard where the top three teams in each division advance to the postseason.

In the West, Winnipeg and Edmonton, the league's two worst teams in 2013, have had to step up their game because, just to make the playoffs, they have to be better than at least one of Calgary, Saskatchewan, and B.C., who combined for 36 wins last season. In contrast, to make the playoffs in the East, Toronto, Hamilton, and Montreal have to be better than an expansion team.

In order to win the Cup, an East Division team theoretically only has to beat one of Calgary, Saskatchewan, B.C., Edmonton, or Winnipeg once with that one occasion being in the championship game. Just to represent their division in the Grey Cup, a West team needs to be built to beat that same list of competitors multiple times. If the teams in the East needed to consistently beat teams in the West just to make the playoffs, they'd get better in a hurry...but, right now, they don't have to.

I've considered other options, from expanding the crossover possibilities to having the Division Semi-Final winners play the first place team in the opposite division...but they're all just partial solutions. The perfect solution requires a tenth team and I promise to discuss that in a future article. However, as long as the CFL remains a league of nine or fewer teams, scrapping the divisional format entirely and seeding the top six teams for the playoffs represents the most complete and logical solution.

Brandon Stewart, Marquay McDaniel (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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