Proposed AFC seeding plan raises important issues about rule changes, precedent

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As Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged in a statement issued on Thursday, “there is no perfect solution” to the cancellation of the Bills-Bengals game. However, the NFL’s Policy Manual for Member Clubs, Game Operations 2022 Edition has already contemplated the imperfect process that will apply in the event a game is canceled.

Playoff seeding is determined by winning percentages.

That applies to any cancellation of a game, whether in Week One or Week 18 or any week in between. The Bills-Bengals game was indeed cancelled. The league previously created a specific rule that applies to the cancellation of games.

Fair or not, that’s the rule. The NFL is now proposing to ownership an impromptu change to the rules. That’s why 24 owners must approve of this adjustment to the applicable protocol, during the season.

The Bengals, one of the teams directly affected by the proposal on which the owners will vote on Friday, have emphasized this point.

“The proper process for making rule changes is in the off-season,” executive VP Katie Blackburn wrote in a memo obtained by ESPN.com. “It is not appropriate to put teams in a position to vote for something that may introduce bias, favor one team over another or impact their own situation when the vote takes place immediately before the playoffs.”

The mere fact that a game is canceled, whatever the reason, is highly unusual. It hasn’t happened in a non-strike year since 1935. Whether due to weather or illness or injury or any other extraordinary factor that would keep a game from being played, the league has already determined the approach that will apply.

Frankly, this should have been simple. It shouldn’t have taken several days to figure it out. It shouldn’t have required memos and meetings and conversations and backroom deals and efforts to drop grains of rice on both sides of the scale in order to balance out any potential inequity. The rule is the rule. If a game is canceled, playoff seeding is determined by winning percentage, without neutral sites or coin flips or any other proposal that was discussed or raised or considered, from adding an eighth team to neutralize the benefit of a bye that was obtained unfairly to the arguably kooky notion that the Chiefs, if they beat the Raiders on Saturday, would have had to choose between taking a week off or having home-field advantage in an AFC Championship against the Bills or Bengals.

The league can now claim that the various possibilities that were discussed or raised or considered actually weren’t. The truth is that no other possibilities should have been considered, because there is already a rule that provides the answer to the question.

Instead, the owners will consider on Friday the ultra-extraordinary step of changing the rules DURING a season. Time and again during the two-plus decades PFT has been in existence, it has been explained that rules deemed to be inappropriate or unfair would not be changed during the season. When voting tomorrow, the owners need to realize the unprecedented nature of the step they’d be taking.

Frankly, the currently proposed approach falls squarely into the category of “making it up as we go.” If the league wanted to have the flexibility to fashion an outcome based on the specific facts of a given case (as it’s doing here), the rules would provide for that. They don’t.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s the right decision or the best of various bad options. There’s a rule on the books. The owners will be considering a change to that rule, during a season.

They have the power to do it, obviously. But everyone needs to understand what this means. Settled, codified rules don’t matter during a given season, if 24 owners suddenly decide they no longer matter. The owners need to be prepared to cross that Rubicon when voting on the proposals they’ll consider on Friday.

It doesn’t matter that the Competition Committee voted in favor of the proposed change. The owners can, and do, reject proposals made by the Competition Committee in the offseason.

It also doesn’t matter that some teams harbor resentment (and they do) toward Bengals owner Mike Brown, who has a habit of voting against proposals on which the vast majority of other clubs agree. Some may be tempted to “stick it” to Brown by approving a rule that, even if the Bengals have a better winning percentage than the Ravens, a head-to-head sweep by Baltimore would result in a coin toss to determine home field, if the two teams are set to play each other in the wild-card round.

The league often justifies the imposition of punishment by explaining that the actions of a team or a person undermine the integrity of the game, and public confidence in professional football. Before ignoring previously-crafted rules in favor of something that seems to better address a given set of facts, the owners need to ask themselves whether that action, in and of itself, undermines the integrity of the game, and/or public confidence in professionals football.

Again, they can do whatever at least 24 of them want to do. But they need to realize the broader impact of what they’d be doing.

Once this starts, where does it end? Would the owners change the rules regarding roughing the passer during a season? Would they make pass inference a 15-yard penalty and not a spot foul during a season? Would they change the overtime rules during a season?

This isn’t about fairness or unfairness to the Chiefs, Bills, Ravens, or Bengals. It’s about whether the rules on the books will remain on the books until a given season ends. If the rules are going to change during a given season, that potentially changes everything.

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