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Origin of the Playoffs

Once upon a time, there weren’t any post-season games

Professional football has been around since the 1890s. Teams were from mostly small-to-medium-sized cities and towns. These were birthed in local gyms, and athletic clubs or were just melded together by locals.

Red Grange Training Children

It began on local sandlots and parks against other local teams. Then those teams would merge together and play other towns within driving distance. When a team in Muncie, Indiana had enough players, they would travel by car or train to Akron, Ohio, and play that town’s group. Those efforts ultimately became the Muncie Flyers and the Akron Pros.

The first-ever pro football game was on November 12, 1892. The game pitted Allegheny Athletic Association against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. Both were comprised of locals who were members of local gyms.

Some teams were formed as company teams. A meat packing plant in Delaware with a plant in Wisconsin wanted some comradeship among its employees and thus the Green Bay Packers were born. Another plant in Decatur, Illinois wanted to advertise its starch products beyond the regional market and thought being the sponsor of a company team would get its name in the national press. This became the Decatur Staleys (who later would become the Chicago Bears).

There began professional football leagues which were loosely organized in which clubs would come and go each season. The New York Pro Football League, the Ohio League, and the Western Pennsylvania Professional Football Circuit were all running and precursors to the National Football League.

In 1919, organizers wanted to start a national circuit, but plans were put off for one year. In 1920, the American Professional Football Conference was born. In a meeting one month later, “Conference” was dropped and “Association” was inserted as play began in 1920. Two years later, the APFA was renamed the National Football League.

Wins, losses, and ties were tabulated in the standings without any divisions, however, ties did not count in the final analysis of a team’s success. Clubs were sorted by win percentage only. Each team made up its own schedule and could play as many – or as few – games as they wished. This explains why some league teams would play just six games while others may have 18 on their schedule. Clubs would also fill in their rosters against non-league teams as they saw fit in order to get another weekend of gate receipts.

This would be equivalent to an NFL club with their bye week and then scheduling a game against a CFL or USFL club to make an extra paycheck. Back then, funds were very, very tight.

Chicago Bears at the Start of a Game

These team owners would work out home and away games with a 60/40 split of the gate receipts with the home team getting the larger portion.

At the conclusion of the season, usually Thanksgiving weekend, the owners would hold a meeting in February and then vote on the league champion. And whichever club had the best win percentage, was voted the title winner.

Contested seasons

This did not come without issues and controversies. At the end of the 1921 season, the Buffalo All-Americans had the best win percentage but were wooed by George Halas owner of the Staleys to play an exhibition game since they finished first and second in the standings. The Staleys won, and then Halas in the owner’s meeting stated the game should be counted, and his Staleys now had the better percentage. He was able to persuade a majority of the other owners who voted his club the league champion.

In 1925, the NFL had really grown to 25 clubs. The Pottsville Maroons and the Chicago Cardinals were neck-and-neck going down the stretch. Pottsville then defeated Chicago 21-7 to finish 10-2-0 with a .833 win percentage while the Cardinals were 11-2-1 with a percentage of .846. Being on the short end, Pottsville then scheduled two more games, one against the Notre Dame All-Stars and the other versus the Atlantic City Roses, both independent teams.

The problem was that Pottsville scheduled the Notre Dame game at Shibe Park in Philadelphia which would draw a sizable crowd and create a good payday. League member Frankfort Yellow Jackets objected because they were a Philadelphia-area club and had territorial rights. Pottsville claimed NFL commissioner Joe Carr had approved of both games over the telephone, but in reality, he had warned the Maroons not to infringe on another team’s territory. Pottsville defeated the All-Stars 9-7 plus the Roses 6-0 (with another dandy gate) and then laid claim to the league championship with a now 12-2-0 record as well as a new .857 win percentage.

Instead, Carr fined the Maroons, suspended them from all league rights, and returned the franchise back to the league. The Cardinals were declared the league champion.

Then there was the Packers of 1931. They had won the league in 1929 and 1930 and at the end of the 1931 season, Green Bay was 12-2-0. They had a .857 win percentage with one game remaining. Meanwhile, second-place Portsmouth Spartans had beaten the Chicago Bears 3-0 in their next-to-last game and now owned a .786 win percentage.

The last game on the schedule for these two clubs was against each other. A win by Portsmouth would propel them into first place and would be named the league champions. Except for Green Bay simply sent a wire that they were going to cancel the game, and thus won the NFL title for a third year in a row.

First playoff game

In today’s pro football, every league has a playoff system. But during the early years of the NFL, there weren’t any playoffs.

Clark Hinkel During A Scrimmage Game

Right off, what exactly is a playoff? How did these two words morph together as one? The two words are completely different from each other, yet they now form one word with one meaning.

The origins of the word “playoff” began from the English word “off” which describes “to finish completely,” and the word “play” whose meaning is “to commence.”

The first printed usage was in the 1607 play, “Lests to Make You Merie” by Thomas Dekker and George Wilkins. Their meaning was to “play off” or “to begin to finish.” Centuries later, Munsey’s Magazine of New York first used the saying for sports in 1901 when an article stated, “We’re going to play off for the Wolcott Cup.”

From 1920 to 1931, the owners voted on the NFL champion in their winter meeting. 1932 brought about a new wrinkle and something that nobody in the league had thought about.

It seems that the Bears and the Spartans finished with different records in the now-eight-team league, but their win percentages were the same at .857. The two clubs had played each other twice during the season but had tied both contests. What to do?

The league decided to hold a one-game playoff to decide the NFL Championship.

The Spartans played at Universal Stadium with a capacity of 8,500. The Bears played home games at Wrigley Field which held 41,649. Therefore, the game was scheduled in Chicago which was expecting an overflow crowd. However, a horrible winter storm blew in days before the game. It was decided to play the game at Chicago Stadium, home of the hockey Black Hawks. Several makeshift rules were in place because of the indoor confines, but Chicago won 9-0.

Even though the one-game did not gross over the anticipated 40,000 paying fans, it did generate 11,198 paying customers. The NFL owners realized that was over 11,000 tickets sold that normally would not have been added to the coffers. What if, the league did this every year?

So, in the 14th season of the league, for 1933 the NFL divided its clubs into the Eastern and Western Divisions for the very first time. The concept wasn’t new. Major League Baseball, which the NFL emulated on almost everything, had a series since 1901 that pitted the National and American League clubs. And they made money at it.

Fresh for this year was the Staten Island Stapletons had folded, but new clubs were the Pittsburgh Pirates (later renamed the Steelers), the Cincinnati Reds, the Philadelphia Eagles (remnants of the Yellow Jackets), while the Boston Braves were now the Boston Redskins (later relocated to Washington).

Plus a new format: the winners of each division would play a one-game playoff to determine the league champs. No longer were win percentages the determining factor, nor were winter meetings where men would vote on who the title winner would be. Now, the victor would be determined on the field.

This format of the two division winners automatically going to the NFL Championship Game was a staple from 1932 through 1966. The NFL was the originator of the expanded playoff format. The idea was to get as many teams into the post-season without diluting the essence of the regular season.

Dallas Cowboys v Cleveland Browns

In 1967, the NFL was now up to 16 clubs, so they decided to realign into two conferences, with two internal divisions. The new playoff format would pit the two division winners of the Eastern Conference against each other while the same thing occurred in the Western Conference. Next, the two winners would compete in the NFL Championship Game.

The clubs and the league needed additional revenue and the thought process was the more teams that made the playoffs, the more games could be played to raise additional gate receipts. Plus, television was in its infancy with the NFL and gave them more exposure in a more crucial setting. It was less genius-oriented and more necessity driven.

With the merger with the American Football League in 1970, the NFL was suddenly a bulging 26 clubs. The two conferences were maintained, but their monikers were changed to the American Conference and National Conference to represent the AFL and NFL’s heritage. Three divisions were housed in each conference.

The playoff system suddenly expanded. All six division winners made the post-season, plus the franchise that held the best record as a Wild Card team. This amped up the number of playoff teams to eight. The winners would meet in their respective conference championship game before going on to the Super Bowl.

The end result was a bevy of extra games with extra ticket sales plus television coverage.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

In 1978 the playoff set-up was changed again, this time by adding two more teams for a total of 10 which added two more Wild Card clubs. What was odd about this playoff format, was that the first weekend of games only pitted the four Wild Card clubs against each other. This meant that all other playoff teams had a bye.

This continued through the 1989 season when the NFL decided the bye week should be an asset to only the top two clubs in each conference and is the format utilized today.

In the pandemic year of 2020, the playoffs expanded to 14 teams for a total of 13 post-season games at the conclusion of each season.

That is exactly 13 more than the NFL experienced from 1920 through 1931.