The Salem News
---- — The traditional Thanksgiving Day games pairing Beverly and Salem, Marblehead and Swampscott, and Danvers and Gloucester may not be the same.
And teams that qualify for the first round of “playoffs” just eight weeks into the season might well never have gotten even that far if the teams played out their full schedules.
So there are certainly flaws in the new statewide high school football playoff system as approved earlier this month by the schools of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association. And the close vote — 161-131 — shows that a lot of coaches and athletic directors have some significant questions about it.
But the idea of including more teams — Swampscott coach Steve Dembowski projects that 55 percent of all schools will now make the playoffs — and the notion of basing all of the qualifiers on existing divisions makes a lot more sense than the current format, in which teams play their slates of conference games, then seemingly bounce up and down come playoff times. It should also make for a more uniform and fair competition. And that should be the bottom line.
Is this the best solution? That remains to be seen.
But as Gloucester head coach Tony Zerilli noted, the new format, in which each league with five teams or more will get two playoff entrants, is at least an attempt at a solution.
The new format also makes serious strides toward protecting the health of young athletes by moving past the absurd prospect of a team having to play three games in 10 days — a season finale on Thanksgiving, a playoff game the following Tuesday and a Super Bowl championship game four days after that. If a college or professional team had to play that kind of bruising schedule, there would be an uproar, and rightly so.
It’s important to note that the new system will debut in 2013 and 2014 on a trial basis. And officials would have the option to return to the current or to yet another format should this one pose new problems rather than solve old ones.
Supporters like Masconomet head coach Jim Pugh have heard the arguments from those who say it could hurt traditional Thanksgiving Day matchups. That tradition will survive, he told The Salem News earlier this month.
“Overall, it’s the best thing for high school football. It’ll make the whole year so much more exciting,” he said. “All you have to do is look at Marblehead and Beverly right now; there’s a good chance one of those teams could finish 10-1 and be going home for the year. Next season, that won’t happen.”
Exploring a format that gives more teams — and thereby more student-athletes — the chance to be part of a state tournament is a goal well worth a try, and deserves at least a two-year trial run. Let the new playoff rounds begin.