, Gloucester, MA

November 29, 2012

Enjoy it while it lasts, new playoff football system doesn't cut it

By Conor Walsh

---- — For anybody planning to take in any of Saturday’s high school Super Bowls, enjoy it.

Because after Saturday, local playoffs may never be the same.

In October, the MIAA’s Football Committee laid out a new playoff format for Massachusetts high school football, a proposal that passed and will be implemented as part of a four-year cycle starting next season.

As things stand now, each conference champion earns a playoff berth, four in each division (a format Gloucester and Manchester Essex fans alike can remember over recent years).

You play Thanksgiving, you play the semifinals the following Tuesday, then the Super Bowl that Saturday.

How’s the old saying go? If it’s not broken, don’t fix it?

The MIAA should take a second to think about that.

Under the new format, the world gets thrown upside-down. Schools are broken into six divisions based on enrollment and competitive balance, and after seven regular-season weeks, the playoffs begin.

Let me repeat: After seven weeks, the playoffs start.

The top two seeds from each conference will automatically qualify for the new state-wide playoffs, and the remaining playoff slots will be filled by wild card teams determined by a power rating system (a BCS-like nightmare in the making).

When the playoffs kick off in Week 8, 160 teams will be taking the field, 55 percent of the state’s programs and more than double the number of teams that played in Tuesday’s respective semifinals.

And after a five-week playoff -- with a Thanksgiving Day game rendered largely useless now thrown right there between the final two rounds -- six state champions will be crowned at Gillette Stadium.

Now, sure, the current system isn’t perfect, and this new format does address some of the problems.

For instance, something doesn’t sit right with me that St. John’s Prep and Brockton will be playing for the Division 1 crown at Bentley University. Under the new format, all state championships would be held at Gillette, which is just downright cool for any high school kid.

On top of that, the new format eliminates the time-crunch of the current system, where Super Bowl teams play three games in nine days.

And while it’s likely that the majority of state champions will still come from the eastern part of the state, the fact that the new system will crown a true “state” champion is an improvement.

But those upgrades aren’t enough to overshadow how stupid this new format is.

It’s the next victory for the “everybody gets a trophy” supporters.

The state’s proposal itself cites “increase post-season opportunities for student-athletes in football” as a goal of the proposal.

You know what has always been one of the coolest things about local high school football? The fact that, for the most part, a team’s got to be damn-near perfect to even get a chance at the playoffs.

As we saw on Tuesday, the playoffs are the ultimate privilege under the current program, and it’s usually only the great teams that earn that privilege.

I think back to 2006, when my alma mater (Beverly) had a pretty stacked squad. 9-1. Missed the playoffs, though, after a loss to undefeated Winthrop.

A tough way to go out, but that speaks to the kind of gauntlet you had to get through to find yourself a part of your division’s final four.

Sure, there will still be a gauntlet in this new playoff system, having to win five games to win the title. But as long as this format exists, the regular season will be forever cheapened and any mediocre team can say it went to the playoffs.

Let’s also not overlook the safety aspect of things. Is it safe for these kids to play three games in nine days? Probably not.

But are we really supposed to believe that if a kid has a nagging injury coming out of Week 7 that he won’t do everything in his power to play the rest of the way, maybe even five games?

Plain and simple, kids are going to get hurt playing football. It’s just the way it is, regardless of what kind of playoff format the state employs.

And how about the teams that don’t make the playoffs? They’ll still play other non-playoff opponents to round out the season, but let’s get serious. That’s a bummer for those kids.

In the current system, even if you’re on a bad team the regular season can have some meaning. You can play the spoiler. You can see if your young kids can find something to build off of against the conference’s brass.

Now, they’ll be playing in a month of meaningless games against a bunch of other kids who don’t care anymore.

Finally, Thanksgiving. Doesn’t need much explanation. Thanksgiving is always going to be Thanksgiving, and this new format will effectively kill Thanksgiving for many teams.

Think back to the Gloucester Super Bowl teams. Imagine if, after winning their semifinal matchup, they had the Danvers game thrown into the mix in the middle of their championship preparations.

Translation: It’d be a JV team going out there on Thanksgiving, and that’s a good way to kill a great tradition.

There’s no perfect playoff system, and I’m not going to pretend that I could lay out a better proposal than the MIAA did.

But the next few seasons are going to show just how flawed this new system is, and, mark my words, people will be pining for the old days.

So, if you’re Super Bowling anywhere on Saturday, take it all in, because it’s going to be awhile before you see things back to the way they’re supposed to be.