Roundtable: A modest football playoff proposal

May, 9, 2012
5/09/12
12:24
AM ET
Over the next two days, both the MIAA Football Committee and MIAA Tournament Management Committee will discuss the latest football proposal for a statewide state championship system, in place of the current Super Bowl system, for the fall of 2013. A vote in favor of this proposal would be another big step towards a reality.

Last February, the MIAA Football Committee voted unanimously in favor of the latest proposal for a six-division, statewide state championship from the Massachusetts High School Football. Last month, the MIAA's Finance Committee gave its support to the proposal -- an important endorsement, considering that wasn't attached to the last playoff proposal laid forth in 2010.

Playoffs would start in Week 8 under this latest proposal, with all six state championships being held at Gillette Stadium the week after Thanksgiving. All Thanksgiving Day rivalries would be kept intact, and a scheduling committee would fill out the remaining weeks for teams that do not qualify for playoffs.

Like the state tournament in many other spots, the state is split up into North, South, Central and West regions, with the former two competing in all six divisions while the latter two just four. Each region will have eight playoff spots, with the exception of the West region (which will have just four). Each league and school is left to determine its own schedule, with leagues containing more than five teams getting two automatic bids, and seeding being left up to power rankings.

Would this work? Is this a viable, reasonable plan? We asked our usual panel of correspondents, along with some special guests: Swampscott head coach Steve Dembowski, Norwood head coach John Sarianides, and Franklin Athletic Director and head coach Brad Sidwell.

What do you think of this plan? Let us know in the comments section.

Brad Sidwell
Athletic Director and Head Coach, Franklin High School
First of all, I was in favor of the Burkhead Plan back when it was voted down in 2010, and I think this answers a lot of those concerns raised and create a playoff system similar to what was proposed then, while keeping the leagues involved and Thanksgiving involved. I’m pretty much willing to change, which I think some don’t want to do, to establish a playoff setting in football. I don’t like this more, but to be honest with you I certainly like it more than current one we have.

There are a couple ways to deal with the Thanksgiving problem, where games traditionally have league implications. Leagues could come up with a point system and not have it counted in representation and as a way of determining playoff representatives. You’d probably have to play your Thanksgiving Day opponent earlier in season, or come up with an earlier option based on the seven league games,

We have not had a serious discussion within our league on how the vote will be, but personally I am willing to play our Thanksgiving opponent twice to create a playoff system for sure, certainly at least on a trial basis for sure.

I’m not concerned with gate, if you look at the Financial Committee report, from an MIAA perspective they, do think it is a viable option, depending on what teams already do. A lot of teams split Thanksgiving gate. I don’t think it’s as big of a deal, but there needs to be a little bit of clarification. Leagues may do it different ways, there might need to be standardization of where it is. I don’t think that’s really that big of a deal. It certainly can seem like something where you feel like you’re losing home gate, but I think if you look at it thoroughly it’s not that big of a deal.

Even though things might not be advantageous to a specific school, I’d urge everyone to take a good look at this proposal. It answers questions raised with the last proposal. I think we can all benefit from a true playoff-type system. It may be a little difficult at first, but like anything once it gets settled, I think people will enjoy it.

John Sarianides
Head Coach, Norwood High School
I think we need a new playoff system. I do, however, have mixed feelings on the current proposal.

I'm not crazy about shortening the season. It creates a nightmare scenario for schools especially for those that don't make the playoffs. I know the MHSFCA has been selling it as a chance to build momentum into the following season for those schools because they would be playing comparable schools with similar records, but I think it'll be tough to keep kids focused if they're out of it.

The positive with the proposal is that it gives a school like ours an opportunity to play in the playoffs. Under this system, we would have gotten in last season. I think it's as good as it's going to get for now but I still think we need enrollment based divisions. I know people want to keep leagues together, but I just don't see how we can in the long term? Schools with enrollments of 2,000 or more shouldn't be playing schools with half their enrollment!

I say let's try it for two years and re-visit it in 2015.

Steve Dembowski
Head Coach, Swampscott High School
I am in favor of the proposal. Here are my reasons:

" Every team that deserves a chance at the playoffs will get one with 160 teams across the state qualifying. This is the “Dumb and Dumber” part –- “so you’re telling me I got a chance”.

" Leagues in the east become less important but not eliminated. The need to change leagues because of enrollment changes, competitiveness, or chance to rebuild as an independent become eliminated. But league championships are still a great goal.

" Better games – with five weeks of playoffs, the cream will raise to the top. Just as important, rebuilding teams will not have to play an unwinnable game in November. Those that argue kids will quit once the eliminated from the playoffs, fail to recognize that competitive games along with Thanksgiving will keep any true player to the end.

" Thanksgiving becomes more important, because for all but 12 teams this is the last game of the season. Attendance for T-Day won’t change; the better the two teams are, the better the attendance period.

" Individual placement – each team in the east will know have the option to appeal placement in its division. For Example, Everett can play D1 and Medford can play down in D3 while both can stay in the GBL.

" Scheduling – with weeks 8-10 being completed for you once you add in league games, only most teams will have three or less open dates to fill.

" Sectional Championships – Great way to award teams for being the best in their area, local games with local teams and fans. I predict attendance will be high at these games and schools will benefit.

" Revenue sharing (weeks 8-10) will help schools stay consistent with regard to revenue and reward schools that build/support their programs with larger gate revenue and other on site revenue; concessions, 50/50, etc.

" Only 12 teams miss the start of the winter season, and all the athletes will have more recovery time between games.

Scott Barboza
ESPN Boston High Schools Editor
Tradition has been the one thing preventing Massachusetts high school football from progressing.

Recent attempts a wide-scale realignment in MIAA football were dead on arrival, largely because they threatened to break up the state's historic Thanksgiving Day rivalries and other traditional league games. Thankfully, with the latest proposal to get before the football committee for vote on Wednesday, we all should come away feeling satisfied.

My biggest gripe with the current system has always been how, comparatively, easier it is for teams in certain leagues to qualify for postseason play. In the Big Three, New Bedford has simply needed to beat Brockton to gain entry into the D1 EMass playoffs. In fact, last year the Whalers lost to Brockton, sinking their league record to 1-1, while the Boxers were 2-0, and yet New Bedford advanced to the playoffs for a second straight year because Brockton failed to finish the season at .500. Nothing against Dennis Golden and his team, but what's fair about that scenario?

Meanwhile, you have leagues like the Hockomock. Such as last year, the Hock had three legitimate teams that would've posed problems to opponents in an open playoff system, as the new proposal provides, only to see King Philip survive the gauntlet. While league games shouldn't be devalued, there's certainly a way to balance those traditional matchups without turning them into de facto one-game playoffs.

The new proposal is able to balance all of this. Instead of a league game equating to a playoff game, we will get an actual in-season playoff game. I believe this might be the most attractive part of the proposal. I think the prospect of playoff game built into the schedule will only generate greater interest in those school communities by increasing the stakes. Plus, teams will have the opportunity to represent their particular regions as champions. I'm not an advocate for handing out trophies for the sake of doing so, what this proposal will create is greater buzz from Week 8 and on, and it invites more deserving teams to the table than ever before.

The secondary benefit of this plan is that it will actually reinforce the importance of leagues. About this time a year ago, speculation was the Dual County League and Merrimack Valley Conference were going to look much different. While that didn't pan out, what had shaped up as a race to realign, with schools seeking out conferences that fit their own mold, might be quelled. This system levels the playing field by enrollment, but also allows schools to appeal for divisional placement.

So thankfully, we might be saved from the scenario that Eastern Mass is opened up like quagmire that's unfolded with the NCAA's conferences. Plus, at the end of they day, teams will still have the chance to earn their league championships, which should count for something -- not everything.

That's progress we can all agree on.

About this proposal, in not so many words, I say, sign me up.

Brendan Hall
ESPN Boston High Schools Editor
Like pretty much everyone, I’ve got issues with the proposal, but they’re mostly just tweaks. For now, this is the best resolution for a true state championship. There are so many reasons why 160 teams fighting for six state championships is a more exciting environment than 19 regional championships, I’m not sure where to start.

But the one obstacle in all of this is Thanksgiving game traditions, and the league implications with many of the most historic ones. I understand the hesitance, but please consider that this conflict arises in other Thanksgiving football states like Pennsylvania and Missouri, and they seem to do just fine working around it.

My girlfriend is a pharmacist from Indiana, who barely recognizes Peyton Manning and knows about as much about football as I know about prescribing pills. But she presented me this radical -– but, in my opinion, sensible –- idea. Why not move the Thanksgiving games up to Labor Day?

Hear me out. A big draw of attending a Thanksgiving game is its reinforcement of community, catching up with the folks you grew up with while jeering your opponents from the across the town line. College kids are home on break. Relatives are visiting for the weekend.

Could that same community spirit be reinforced on Labor Day? For some of us, it’s another gathering-type holiday; some college kids have not yet taken off for school. I would think playing some of these games on a Saturday afternoon or night during Labor Day weekend would be a terrific draw.

That's one of many ways we can solve some of the concerns with this current proposal, which I think is the best one to be presented the MIAA yet, but the Thanksgiving dilemma is an interesting one. On one hand, you're never going to get rid of or diminish the importance of some of the nation's oldest rivalries like Boston English-Boston Latin, Needham-Wellesley and Fitchburg-Leominster. On the other hand, you ask most kids whether they'd rather play a Thanksgiving game or play at Gillette, and more often than not they choose the latter.

But evidently, whenever you expand to 19 glorified bowl games in lieu of a true state championship, you are going to have headaches. That’s just pure logic.

Ten years ago, when I played my high school ball at Oakmont Regional, there were six Super Bowls played between Western and Central Mass. Now, Central Mass has six of its own bowl games to be played amongst 12 of the 50-plus teams in the region. Western Mass. now has four, and Eastern Mass. has a ridiculous nine.

Over the last several years, the drum has been beaten for Central and Western Mass to have a piece of the marquee venue, Gillette Stadium, as well as some of the schools from lower divisions. An idea of even adding another day of Super Bowls at Gillette, crazy as that sounds, was kicked around but quickly defeated.

Ultimately, the MIAA made the King Solomon decision to give everyone a piece of the Gillette pie over the next two years, and we saw the best and worst of it on December 3.

One the one hand, you had Leominster High and its raucous, loud, blue-clad crowd; some have said was the largest fan section ever gathered for a high school game at Gillette. And then in the game preceding it, you had the top two teams in Western Mass squaring off in front of a ghost town of a crowd.

After that, you had Duxbury blowing through an overmatched Tewksbury squad that finished the season 7-6. Then the nightcap, Mashpee’s Jarod Taylor ran in every which direction for a record 308 yards, but once again in front of a pretty light crowd. Meanwhile, the No. 1 team in the state was playing in its Super Bowl at Bentley University, while Atlantic Coast League champion Dennis-Yarmouth had to trek all the way from South Yarmouth up to Lynn to play in its championship.

All the while, thanks to the current format of awarding berths to league champions, many more suitable would-be playoff participants such as Bridgewater-Raynham, North Attleborough, Natick, Xaverian and Catholic Memorial all sat at home wondering what could have been.

As long as there are 19 Super Bowls without a true state championship, there will continue to be calls for expansion, complaints about the structure, and still others waiting for their piece of the pie. How much is too much before we’ve totally diluted the meaning of postseason football?

We’re reaching a critical turning point in the development of grassroots football in Massachusetts, where the exposure and respect have both increased. Catholic Memorial is sending two of its seniors to Ohio State on full scholarship. Miami has reportedly offered one of BC High’s linemen. Everett’s prized left tackle is ranked as one of the nation’s best at his position, and just committed to Notre Dame over nearly two dozen other offers. UMass is moving to the Division 1 bowl subdivision, just offered a sophomore lineman from Millis, and has made it abundantly clear the Bay State is a primary target for them on the recruiting trail.

I’m no historian, but you probably have to go back quite a ways to recall the last time we’ve seen so many sought-after kids in such volume. Is how we want to showcase our rising talent to the rest of the country?

Adam Kurkjian
ESPN Boston correspondent

Personally, I would like to see the new playoff proposal pass. Will it? I have my doubts, but I hope it does.

The reason I want it to pass is because the current system we have in place is dreadful. There are way too many divisions and the postseason is so watered down right now it’s embarrassing.

This last round of Super Bowls at Gillette was the worst I’ve ever seen from a competitive balance standpoint, and it is directly correlated to the league-jumping teams do every year in order to achieve the exact opposite result.

We currently have a collection of regional Super Bowl winners that haven’t won anything nearly as valuable as what they could with a more efficient system. This past year was a perfect example. Did BC High and Everett really need to be in separate divisions? What about Duxbury and Dennis-Yarmouth or Concord-Carlisle?

The fact of the matter is that the kids themselves want to play and beat the best. The trophy means more if it is won that way.

That is exactly what would happen if this proposal goes through by cutting the number of champions down by over a third.

Don’t get me wrong. The plan is by no means perfect and there are those who have voiced legitimate gripes about certain details, including the ambiguity over scheduling for teams that don’t make the playoffs and the multiplier for parochial schools.

But while there are nits to pick, this plan gets the big issues right. With the addition of more playoff berths, it will reduce the number of absurd league tiebreaker controversies we’ve seen over the years. A true state champion has never been crowned on a Massachusetts football field. That would come to an end, too.

The bottom lines is the current system, whether people are willing to recognize it or not, is broken. Would this plan fix it? Maybe. Would it be better than what we have now? Absolutely.

John Botelho
Staff Writer, Brockton Enterprise
The proposed plan for a state-wide playoff system is not only exponentially better than the system currently in place, but it also addresses nearly every single concern people might have with the way things are already done.

First and foremost, this new system would eliminate high football players suiting for three games in nine days. Every other time they play during their career is with six or seven days between games, and the current system in Massachusetts asks kids to play their three most physically demanding games of the season in such a short amount of time, significantly increasing risk of injury. Whether kids are more fired up for rivalry games on Thanksgiving, or they're facing the biggest, strongest, fastest and most talented players they've seen all season in playoff games, the level of play at the end of the season always feels like it goes to a new level of intensity.

Beyond safety, which should always be priority number one any time high school athletes are involved, this new system would do a much better job of giving real champions. As it stands right now, the state names 19 Super Bowl champions. That number is beyond outrageous, especially when you consider no other team sport names more than four state champions. Furthermore, football is the hardest team to field a quality squad based on numbers alone, and naming that many simply waters things down.

Every other sport in the state takes into account a team's whole season, and uses overall record to determine whether or not a team qualifies for their respective sectional tournaments. Football stands alone, however, in that the only way to reach the playoffs is by winning your league. That doesn't leave room for a team to have one off night in three months. It also doesn't factor in that not all leagues are created equal.

For anyone who believes the current qualifying system of league champions actually works, needs to look no further than "Super" Saturday at Gillette Stadium this year. Of the six games played there -- EMass. Div. 1,2,3,4, Central Mass. Div. 1 and Western Mass. Div. 1 -- exactly zero were played in close fashion. The closest game of the biggest stage of the year in this state was a 21-7 win by BC High.

It gets worse though, if you look at all 19 games played that day. Just six games were decided by a touchdown or less, meaning 13 teams won the Super Bowl in pretty easy fashion. Isn't the Super Bowl supposed to feature the two best teams finding out who the top dog is? Even teams that went undefeated and rolled through the playoffs were tested more during the regular season than many were in the title game.

Of the unbeatens that won at Gillette -- Everett, Duxbury, Mashpee and Concord-Carlisle -- none played their closest game of the season that day. Duxbury and Mashpee both featured wins by a touchdown or less at some point during their seasons to reach the Super Bowl.

The current system means the teams that played them tight, but ultimately lost, had no shot to reach the postseason. Consider that teams like East Bridgewater (10-1, 6-2 SSL), Whitman-Hanson (8-3, 2-2 Patriot) and Bridgewater-Raynham (8-2, 2-1 OCL) would've replaced playoff teams if things had gone better for them on nights when these teams lost to the eventual league champions.

The proposed system would not only give teams like this a second chance, it would make football games matter a lot more for a lot more teams as the season wore on. As it stands now, teams are, for all intents and purposes, eliminated from playoff contention as soon as they lose a league game right now. You can still find your way in, but it is out of your hands. Once a team loses, they need help from another team or two to make up for that. Often times, the best you can hope for with a loss is a three-champion situation that comes down to a coin flip. Do we really want to see football league champions settled by whose better at calling heads or tails?

When you consider the new proposal has plans to keep both league play and Thanksgiving games intact, there is really no reason not to go to this. Anything has to be better than seeing 19 one-sided "Super Bowl" games early in December every year.

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