Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Fixing Massachusetts' High School Football Playoffs

Holliston celebrating a Division 4 state championship at Gillette Stadium last December.
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Yesterday the Football Committee of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) voted to amend its statewide football tournament. The vote comes just two years after the new statewide plan was implemented in 2013, and expands the field from six divisions to eight.

Prior to 2013, Massachusetts did not crown true state champions. Instead, the season culminated with 18 sectional "Super Bowl" champions every year, with teams winning titles in Eastern, Central and Western Mass, but never beyond their respective region.

The new system has faced resistance ever since its inception for a number of reasons. Namely, it rendered Thanksgiving Day rivalries meaningless for many teams, especially those playing in the state title games. It also made selling tickets difficult for teams that missed the playoffs. Those schools now had to play a "non-playoff" schedule against unfamiliar opponents with no real stakes.

But it also began playoff football sooner, and awarded six true state championships, with each title game being played at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. For all its flaws, the system was delivering on its promise of allowing all the best teams to play for state titles in the Patriots' house.

Now, both of the system's current strengths will be eliminated, while the fundamental issues still remain.

No longer will every state title game be played at Gillette. There simply aren't enough hours in the day. As it is now, the six state title games go from nine in the morning until after 10 pm.

Unless you want to see the smallest schools play each other at 2 in the morning, or the Krafts are willing to make the Super Bowls a two-day event, get ready for state title games to be played in Division 2/3 college stadiums across the state.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, but when 10 or 12 teams get to play in an NFL stadium in front of thousands of fans, while four to eight teams go to Worcester State, let's just say all things aren't equal. And let's not kid ourselves, the games that will end up outside of Gillette are the ones featuring schools from Central and Western Mass.

Yes, logistically, it will be easier for those schools to go to a Westfield State or an Assumption College, but those kids are just as deserving of the once-in-a-lifetime chance to play at Gillette.

Also, shouldn't we worry about title dilution?

The last two years sort of felt like they hit the sweet spot for competition. How many quality teams can we reasonably expect there to be now in the state's smaller divisions as teams get shifted around?

The divisions are currently entitled Divisions 1-6, and will now switch to 1, 1A, 2, 2A, 3, 3A, 4 and 4A. So, how many quality teams will there be in 4A if all the best of the current Division 6 teams are moved into 4 instead of 4A in the new format?

At some point, does winning a state title mean just a little bit less?

Obviously, any team that wins a state title in any division will have earned it, but Massachusetts' move to eight state champions will put it even with football-crazy Florida. Massachusetts and Florida are simply not equals on the gridiron.

The Sunshine State has nearly 20 million residents, compared to the Commonwealth's under 7 million, but forget population size, let's just talk about the quality of play.

Over the past five years, Florida has produced 1,295 recruits rated as 3-star or above by 247 Sports' composite rankings (aka, a solid Division 1 FBS prospect), while Massachusetts has 52. If you were to use those numbers as a general baseline, you'd project that Florida produces as much Division 1 talent in a single year (nearly 260 recruits) as Massachusetts does in a quarter-century.

The NFL numbers tell the same story, as Florida boasts 186 alumni in the pros to Massachusetts' 11.

In no way are these two states comparable on the field, but now they will each crown eight state champions, and Massachusetts' original issues of "non-playoff" scheduling and "meaningless" Turkey Day games remain.

There's no doubt that this move to eight divisions will keep more schools alive longer, and thus, more teams/fan bases engaged, but if the MIAA wants to create actual excitement, they're moving in the wrong direction.

The original decision to determine true state champions was a step in the right direction, and in time, Massachusetts should move further down that path. How? By contracting divisions and promoting competition.

Think about how great this season would be if Marshfield could play one of those Division 1 powers at Gillette on the season's final day. As competitive as Division 3 is this year, imagine throwing D4 teams like Holliston, and even some Central/Western Mass teams like Tantasqua, Doherty and Agawam. And, really, wouldn't it be great to create a true "small school" championship by combining Divisions 5 and 6?

Ideally, I'd like to see three to four divisions with longer playoffs, but I certainly get the logistical challenges that come with it. You would have to start the season around two weeks earlier, and have to fine tune the playoff qualification process (league finish vs power ratings, etc), but I think it would be worth it to put the best of the best against each other.

As for the teams that don't make the playoffs, why not give them all a week off during the first week of the playoff bracket, then have a series of bowl games that feature all the teams that finished respectably in their leagues?

Instead of the nonsensical "non-playoff" pairings we have now, wouldn't it be cool to see leagues negotiate "bowl games" among each other and bring us exciting matchups each year? I don't know about you, but I'd make the drive to watch the third best team in the Atlantic Coast League take on the third best team in the Hockomock Kelley-Rex.

How about a Central/West bowl game between the 3rd place team from Mid-Wach A against the second-best team in Western Mass AA? I'm not saying I could come up with every possible matchup, but if you let leagues negotiate with each other, create bowl games for 2 or 3 of their teams that don't make the playoffs, and choose attractive venues for their fans to make the trip to (or you could just rotate which conference's representative hosts the game each year), don't you think that would be a better way to end a playoff-less season than just playing some random team with no stakes?

This way you'd get the chance to play for a trophy, and start a tradition unique to Massachusetts. Heck, you could probably throw a sponsor on those things too. Picture it: Dennis-Yarmouth vs Attleborough in the Bay State Savings Bank Bowl.

I'll cover that game!

Just like I would gladly cover the three or four state championships played at Gillette a few weeks after. Too many of the state championship games are blowouts as it is. The average margin of victory last year at Gillette was 23.5 points, and we're not going to see games any closer if we expand to eight divisions, creating more classifications where one or two teams are head and shoulders above the field.

No, the way to fix the MIAA playoffs is to create state championships between teams that belong on the same field in matchups that generate buzz, and to give all the teams that don't make the postseason an exciting alternative.

It would also allow teams that don't make the playoffs a bye before taking on an exciting opponent in a bowl game, then another bye before battling their rival on Thanksgiving. Obviously, if one of those teams is involved in a state championship game, they won't play their starters, but again, in a system with less divisions, there would only be six to eight teams in the entire state playing for titles after Thanksgiving.

Those Turkey Day games would go back to meaning something, most kids would play slightly less games overall (in football, I would argue that's never a bad thing), and we'd get a unique tradition of high school bowl games. I mean, none of this will ever happen, but that all sounds pretty fun, doesn't it?

The current system isn't terrible, but it could be a whole lot better. All it requires is a little outside the box thinking and a willingness to embrace change.


Aleke Msumba said...

To be honest with you Joe - I don't see a single flaw in your analysis or suggestions. I grew up in the
Merrimack Valley and our football was pretty good. Back then I'm pretty sure we were D2 and our town played
in a real State Championship both in football and basketball. Our Thanksgiving Day game was huge against
arch rival and nemesis Central Catholic. Actually the tradition just ended last season 2014, after a 42 year
run. I love the idea for a bowl game set-up as well. Any chance those folks over at the MIAA can offer you
a consultancy gig?

Joe Parello said...

Haha, I don't know if they can afford to pry me away from the CMass lacrosse beat, Aleke 😉 Glad you liked the suggestions. They'll never happen, but it's fun to imagine.