If everything falls precisely right, the Carolina Panthers could conceivably win the NFC South with a record of 6-9-1. That would be the fourth time since the NFL went to the eight-division format in 2002 that a team with an 8-8 record or worse won its division, and that would easily be the worst record of any division winner. That would secure a home game for the Panthers in the wild-card round ... but it's more than just that. It is possible -- quite likely, I'd argue -- that the Panthers, were they to reach this theoretical "peak," they would, as a 6-9-1 team, host the Arizona Cardinals ... who would be 12-4.
It's not hard to get there: All you really need is for Carolina to split its last two games (losing to Cleveland and beating Atlanta), New Orleans losing two of its last three and Arizona losing to Seattle and beating San Francisco. That would give Arizona a tie for the best record in the NFC, Carolina a worse record than Minnesota and St. Louis … and the Panthers a home game. No matter what: Someone from that division is finishing 8-8 or worse: They already all have eight losses.
This seems absurd, and anytime something seems absurd on its surface these days, there are calls for change. How can this be fair? One of the most charming aspects of American sports is our dogged insistence that everything always be fair, as if that's a conceivable goal for any advanced culture, as if that's something we'd want.
You know what's fair? Nature is fair. And nature ends up with cute baby animals being torn apart by bigger animals just because they happened to be sitting nearby when the bigger animal got hungry.
Our society has become more wonkish by nature, plagued with this inevitable sense that if we can analyze something hard enough, we can figure it out ... we can solve it. This is not the worst instinct. It's also a uniquely human instinct, and a hopeful one. But it also can reek of tinkering ... and there's no assurance that our solutions will make things better. Things can always get worse. And in this case: The "fair" thing is to leave well enough alone.
Whenever a team like Carolina pops up, or a team like the 2005 Padres or 2006 Cardinals make the MLB playoffs, or one division or conference looks demonstratively worse than the other, the notion is floated: Reseed for the playoffs. In the NBA -- a league that, especially under new commissioner Adam Silver, always seems up for radical tinkering -- this has become a full-on movement. Led by outstanding SB Nation writer Tom Ziller, End Conferences is an increasingly loud mantra. Grantland's Zach Lowe reported it out and found that a number of NBA execs, including Mark Cuban and Suns owner Robert Sarver, are actively lobbying to reseed playoff teams, regardless of conference. Silver's potentially into it: "We are studying the issue closely."
So is it OK if I disagree here? I love conferences and I love divisions and I love the occasional inequality they create. The world is flat and all is global, but we are still inherently regional. It is easy to stand above it all and say, "It would be more fun and fair if we ranked all teams 1-32 and just picked the top eight or 16." But most teams (and, more important, their fans) aren't standing above it all. They're in the thick of it. And they're trying to beat their neighbor's brains in. What else are regions for?
Ostensibly, one major issue with this is that switching rules on a whim, because there happens to be a current imbalance, is actually incredibly unfair. Mark Cuban's plan, according to Lowe, would "shift Chicago, Detroit, Indiana, and Milwaukee to the West, with the three Texas teams and New Orleans moving to the East." (How convenient for Cuban's team!) Here's the funniest part of that plan, from Lowe's piece:
Cuban's plan would only be temporary, subject to revision as the league's balance of power shifts, he says. "A shakeup will create interest," Cuban says. "And after five years, you can learn and adjust from there."
Well, yes, it might create interest ... it would create the interest of people noticing that the rules are changed to benefit Mark Cuban, and then potentially changed back when they no longer benefit Mark Cuban. How Ayn Randian!
Not all arguments are as blatantly self-interested or as wildly fluctuating as Cuban's, but they come from the same place: Currently, things are like this, so rather than wait for them to change (or, more accurately, allow the human beings in charge work to make them change), let's artificially shift it around for temporary satisfaction. Ziller makes a strong argument that we should end conferences because the Western has been so much better for so long -- roughly 13 years -- that there is something fundamentally different about the conferences ... but I still don't think there's something fundamentally different about the conferences.
Teams in the Western Conference -- or divisions other than the NFC South -- don't have higher payrolls, or get to start six players or anything. The reason the teams in the Western Conference are better is because the management in charge of their teams have been smarter and created better rosters.
Why have they done this? Because they've had to. That conference is so good! The notion that rewarding them with more playoff spots is going to help matters is specious at best. Ziller and company think they're raising the bar to the playoffs, but they're actually lowering it in the long term: Phoenix won't have to worry about being better than Portland or New Orleans; all they'll have to do is be better than Orlando or Milwaukee.
Plus, if you look at the Eastern Conference, one of the main reasons it's worse is because there are teams actively trying to get worse to make sure they are better in the future. The 76ers, the Celtics, heck, even the Knicks (who might not be trying to get worse but certainly have reached the goal regardless) ... these are teams that are going to be a lot better in five years than they are now. If we switch it now, do we have to switch it back in five years? Or do we only do that if Mark Cuban wants to?
More to the point: Divisions and conferences matter because in every other realm other than this, we insist that they matter. You see this constantly in baseball, but you hear it everywhere: Winning your division should mean something. Divisions built around regional rivalries are organizing and clarifying: The Yankees and Red Sox have been constructing rosters to beat each other for years, and the Blue Jays, Orioles and Rays have been constructing rosters to beat them. This is how it works. You can only control what is right in front of you: You win your division, and then you worry about what comes next. If there's a Wild Card or something that allows you to advance, that's great, but what matters most is beating the teams closest to you -- the ones you know best. It's clarifying for players and coaches and owners and it's deeply satisfying for fans.
And remember: These things always come back around. The most fair concept in the world is time: Time always makes it all even out. The NFC West this year has been the best division in football this year, and the NFC South has been the worst. In other words, the exact opposite of 2008, when the Arizona Cardinals won the NFC West with a 9-7 record and were widely considered the worst NFL playoff team in recent memory. The NFC South was fiercely contested all season, with the Panthers at 12-4 barely edging out the Falcons at 11-5. The Falcons were forced to play at Arizona ... and promptly lost; the Cardinals then beat the Panthers too, in Carolina. Was it "fair" that Arizona made the playoffs over an 11-5 Patriots team that season? Probably not. But it all evens out: Maybe the Cardinals pay the price this year, or the Seahawks do. When you focus on what is most immediately fair, you miss how the Earth tends to smooth all this out on its own.
I understand that this is viscerally frustrating to see such lousy NFC South teams hosting playoff games. But the job of those running our leagues, the ones making the rules, is to look past the here and now, to ignore backlash and instant reactions, and to let time run its course. Right now it's unfair. Later it will be unfair. Life is unfair. But in the long run, it is equally unfair. Let's keep our fingers off the scale. And for crying out loud, let's keep Mark Cuban as far away from it as possible.