The NFL’s annual league meeting brought much discussion regarding the pending labor showdown, rules changes to improve safety, and commissioner Roger Goodell’s desire to expand the regular season to 18 games.
Though the expiring collective bargaining agreement is the league’s most pressing concern, the juxtaposition of passing new rules to improve players’ safety and the desire to extend the season of such a physically demanding sport seems peculiar, if not preposterous.
Under the proposed plan, the league would shorten its preseason to two games and add two regular season games to the 16-game schedule. An additional bye week would also be included in the schedule, increasing the regular season to 20 weeks.
Though many have called for a shorter preseason to decrease the number of injuries in meaningless games, it’s far more likely for marquee players to suffer injuries having to play two more “real” games with higher stakes and intensity.
In reality, many of the league’s top players partake in only a small portion of the preseason, sometimes sitting out entire games or only playing a series or two in each contest.
If the fundamental goal is to protect the players, would a plan calling for a 12.5 percent (two regular season games) increase in players’ exposure to potential injury really be the answer?
Frankly, the NFL is only interested in increasing its revenue despite these rules changes and calls to increase safety.
Using the veil of safety is motivated solely by the revenue the top stars of the league create—stars such as New England’s Tom Brady who missed the entire 2008 season with a knee injury suffered in Week 1.
Goodell and the league can speak of improving player safety, but a few isolated rule changes will not supersede the increased risk of exposing players to injury and fatigue in an expanded regular season.
How often do we see players running on fumes—physically or mentally—by the time they enter the postseason? Now, just add two extra games to that equation. It would be extremely difficult for teams to maintain a high quality of play deep into the playoffs.
Do we really want players that are barely able to compete in the conference championships and Super Bowl?
Traditionalists will also point to the effect an 18-game schedule would have on the record book—both single-season and career numbers alike.
We’ve already seen the records from the 1950s through 1970s crushed due to the progression from a 12-game schedule to 14 games in 1961 to the current 16 games in 1978.
There has to be a point when the league begins pushing the limit to maintain some reverence for the history of the game.
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is already rewriting the record book, but an expanded 18-game schedule would provide him with a 50 percent increase in the number of games he can play in a season compared to legendary quarterbacks of the 1950s such as Johnny Unitas playing 12 games a season.
To put this in perspective, using a stat-happy sport such as baseball, Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in a 154-game schedule in 1927.
If baseball adopted a 50 percent increase in regular season games, Albert Pujols would have 231 games this season to take aim at the Bambino’s career-high mark.
A current NFL running back playing eight seasons would be able to play 16 more games—one extra season—than all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith would have had in eight years.
This could easily be an additional 1,500 rushing yards in a career, a significant boost in climbing the all-time rushing list.
Why even bother keeping statistics anymore?
Though Goodell would never admit it publicly, he is far less concerned in improving player safety and preserving its history than he is in strengthening the moneymaking machine that is the NFL. All of these discussed topics center around increasing revenue.
So how can the league increase revenue while sincerely maintaining safety and protecting the record book?
A far simpler plan would address nearly all of these concerns while still increasing league revenue.
The league does need to revise the preseason schedule. The modern NFL player maintains a high level of conditioning throughout the calendar year, so a four-game preseason is unnecessary.
Dropping one preseason game would provide enough time for coaches to evaluate unproven talent while limiting the risk of injury to established players.
While this would leave an unbalanced home-away schedule of three games, teams could schedule an extra scrimmage at their stadiums to recover lost revenue in seasons when they played only one home preseason game.
Though less-appealing to season ticket holders, teams could opt to recover the loss through a prorated increase in the nine remaining home games in the package.
The remaining lost revenue from these 16 preseason games (the total number of league preseason games would decrease from 64 to 48) would be recouped by the proposed changes to the regular season and playoffs.
The elimination of one preseason game would provide an open week in the NFL’s calendar. Instead of increasing the number of regular season games, a second bye week would be added to each team’s regular season schedule.
The NFL included two bye weeks in each team’s schedule in 1993, but the response was unfavorable. However, with the astronomical money involved in the league’s current television contract, the extra week in the regular season would provide more nationally-televised primetime games with lucrative advertising revenue.
Another benefit from an additional bye week would be added flexibility to schedule international or neutral-site games.
One of the biggest complaints from players regarding playing overseas is the sacrifices that have to be made for traveling and adjusting to the different time zone. Providing teams with another bye week would ease the strain of playing in these international games.
The league could easily schedule a few more international games under this plan.
The extra bye week would also provide more recovery time for teams, increasing their chances of remaining healthy for the postseason.
Each team would receive its first bye some time between Week 3 through 9 and the second between Week 10 through 16. All 32 teams would play in Week 17 and 18 to maintain competitive balance.
The most radical change would be to increase the number of playoff teams in each conference to eight, the four division champions and four wild card teams.
With the extra bye week in the regular season schedule, the first-round bye for the top two teams in each conference would be eliminated. No other major professional sport offers byes in the first round of the playoffs, so why should the NFL?
This would create an additional four games in the Wild Card round, improving revenue for these four playoff teams as well as the entire league through added television revenue.
The top team in each conference would still earn home-field advantage in the playoffs, and the teams would be reseeded for the Divisional round (the best team in the conference would play the worst remaining team).
For good measure, the league could even address the criticism of the current system by no longer promising a home game to each division winner. The four teams with the best records in each conference would play home games in the first round of the postseason.
Division winners would only be guaranteed a spot in the postseason, thus creating more incentive for teams having already clinched a weak division to continue competing for one of the top four seeds.
When considering this plan, the league would simply have to examine the lost revenue of 16 total preseason games against the potential revenue gained from an extra week of nationally-televised games, four more playoff games, and the flexibility to schedule more international and neutral-site games.
On top of that, the owners would not have to fight the union over the contractual issues created by increasing the number of games in the regular season schedule.
And even though they are not top priorities, it would actually be a fundamental step in protecting the health of players by adding an extra bye to the schedule while also preserving the game’s modern history.
Will it happen? Probably not, but it’s something to ponder before making radical changes to the fabric of the National Football League.