Geographic Inaccuracies in the NFL’s Divisions

(Disclaimer: the subject matter of this article is rather inane. It is not relevant to the things in life that actually matter.)

Much of the talk in the football world in recent weeks has revolved around the historically bad NFC East. The division will finish with a cumulative winning percentage of 0.300 against teams not in their division, which is among the worst in NFL history and only slightly better than the all-time-worst 2008 NFC West, which finished at 0.250. (Had it not been for clutch wins by the Cowboys and Giants in Week 15, this year’s NFC East would have tied that dubious record.) Until yesterday, the division was led by the mediocre Dallas Cowboys, who are now 7–8.

But this talk of the Cowboys and the NFC East reminds me of a question that has perplexed me ever since I was a kid: why are the Cowboys in the NFC East? Dallas is nowhere near the East Coast of our country, so it makes no sense that the Cowboys would be in the East division.

Texas is nowhere near the East Coast of the United States. So why would a team from Dallas, Texas be placed in the NFC East division? (Image from Wikipedia)

I honestly do not know the complete answer to this question, but I suspect it is a relic of a time (before 1967) when the NFL was simply divided into West and East. I also suspect that the only reason they have never been moved to a more geographically accurate division (like the NFC South) is that the NFL wants to preserve historic rivalries, like the bitter Eagles-Cowboys rivalry.

But due to my perfectionist nature, I would rather have the divisions be geographically accurate than have rivalries be preserved. If it were up to me, I would trade the Cowboys to the NFC South or AFC South in exchange for a team that’s on the East Coast, in order to make the divisions more accurate. And as it turns out, the Cowboys’ place in the NFC East is one of four notable geographic inaccuracies in the NFL’s division alignment. Thus, I devote this article to the following question: how could we trade teams between the NFL’s divisions in order to make the divisions geographically accurate?

Before I continue, I have to discuss what is meant by East, West, North, and South in the context of American geography. They do not directly refer to the cardinal directions (for example, East really means northeast, and South really means southeast). Rather, they refer to four different regions of our country, which have different cultures and histories.

East refers to the northeast branch of our country. It is centered around the big cities of the Northeast Megalopolis, and the East is the most urban of the four regions of our country. The East begins around Virginia and extends northeastward through New England. All of the East is within 400 miles of the Atlantic Ocean.

South refers to the southeast quarter of our country. It extends as far west as Texas. On the Atlantic Coast, I would say that the South ends once we reach the DC area, although this is debatable. (Some would say that Maryland and Delaware are still the South.) The South is generally more rural than the East. It has a distinct culture and distinct accent.

North refers to the Midwest. The Midwest contains the Great Lakes states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan), as well as the prairie states like Missouri and Indiana. The Midwest even includes some regions that are not so far from the Atlantic Ocean, such as Ohio and (arguably) western Pennsylvania. While the Midwest contains big cities like Chicago and Detroit, it also contains thousands of square miles of farmland.

West refers to the entire western half of our country. It includes all of the West Coast, all of the Mountain West, and most of the Southwest (like Arizona and New Mexico). While the West takes up about half of the land area of the United States, much of that area (especially in the Mountain West) is sparsely populated.

Having defined these terms, I can now state the four notable errors in the NFL’s current division realignment:

1. The Dallas Cowboys are in the NFC East. Dallas is in the South, not the East.

2. The Indianapolis Colts are in the AFC South. Indianapolis is in the North, not the South.

3. The Miami Dolphins are in the AFC East. Miami is in the South, not the East.

4. The Baltimore Ravens are in the AFC North. Baltimore is in the East, not the North.

I propose the following two trades to correct these four errors:

1. NFC Trade: Trade the Dallas Cowboys for the Carolina Panthers. That is, move the Cowboys to the NFC South, displacing the Panthers, who then replace the Cowboys in the NFC East.

2. AFC Trade: Trade the Miami Dolphins, Indianapolis Colts, and Baltimore Ravens. That is, move the Dolphins to the AFC South, displacing the Colts, who then move to the AFC North and displace the Ravens, who then replace the Dolphins in the AFC East.

The AFC trade works out perfectly, because it puts all three of the miscast AFC teams in the divisions where they belong. However, the NFC trade is not perfect, because Charlotte, NC (home of the Panthers) is really in the South, not the East.

But it doesn’t have to be perfect. There are 32 teams in the NFL. There is no guarantee that exactly eight of them have to lie in each of the four regions of the United States. It is inevitable that dividing the 32 teams into East, West, North, and South would result in at least one team being slightly miscast. But I would rather have it be only slightly miscast, like classifying Charlotte as the East, than extremely miscast, like classifying Dallas as the East. It is a bit of a stretch to call Charlotte the East, but it certainly makes more sense than putting Dallas in the East. Charlotte is at least on the East Coast.

Furthermore, for some of the cities that host NFL teams, it’s debatable how they should best be classified. For example, Kansas City could be considered the West, the North, or the South, depending on who you ask. And Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo could all be classified as East or North equally well.

I conclude this article by pointing out that there is no need to preserve historic rivalries because rivalries are always changing anyway. A great rivalry can develop in just a few years’ time, and a historically great rivalry can fizzle out as soon as one or both teams lose their winning ways.

For example, in the early 1990s, the rivalry between the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins was considered one of the league’s best rivalries, because both teams were perennial Super Bowl contenders led by future Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Jim Kelly for the Bills and Dan Marino for the Dolphins), and both teams played in the AFC East. But throughout the 21st Century so far, this rivalry has been irrelevant, as both teams have been consistently mediocre: the two teams have combined for just four playoff appearances since 2001, and neither team has won a playoff game since 2000. Furthermore, both teams have been forced to live under the shadow of their division overlords, the New England Patriots. It seems strange to think that the Bills-Dolphins rivalry was once among the hottest rivalries in football.

Thanks to this dude, the Dolphins-Bills rivalry has faded into irrelevance.

It is the nature of team sports that the fortunes of each team ebb and flow, and we have no way of knowing which teams will be dominant twenty years from now, or fifty years from now. Thus, we would end up with just as many great rivalries if we realigned the divisions than we would if we kept them as they are. And since I am someone who really appreciates the geographic aspect of sports rivalries, I would appreciate it if the NFL made the above trades between the divisions in order to make the divisions geographically accurate.

………but I know they’re not going to, and that’s okay. It was just a thought experiment.

Thank you for reading my opinions on this not-very-important topic.

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Additional notes, June 2021:

Grad student and TA. Born 1993.