Two years ago, the NFL extending the regular season was a question of when, not if—and the answer to the question was "soon." The league was more than willing to rip up the single-season record book, jeopardize the consistent quality of the TV product and make the season drag almost all the way to March.
But it didn't happen. A conflicted reception from fans and a surprisingly adamant "no" from the players stopped the 18-game freight train dead in its tracks.
Now, though, momentum might again be building toward an expanded regular-season schedule. None of the concerns have changed, but the potential upside might soon outweigh the significant downside.
Will players and fans finally let the idea go through?
The league's most recent attempt failed at least in part due to terrible timing. It was the height of public concussion concerns, and the landmark class-action lawsuit was still threatening to bring down the league. It felt like the height of hypocrisy to expose players to 12.5 percent more football a season while NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell repeatedly insisted player safety was his "top priority," as in this NFL.com video of his 2012 state-of-the-league press conference.
A contemporary poll commissioned by Sports Illustrated revealed fans were still deeply divided over whether it was a good idea. Yet, fans sick of paying the full freight for half-baked preseason football were bellyaching for something to change, and the lure of many millions' worth of new TV money seemed to trump everything else.
But NFL owners couldn't just flip a switch and make it happen, at least not by then. The league had given up that contractual right to move to 18 games back in 2011, per ESPN.com, when the NFLPA flat-out refused to agree to it. Refusing to expand the season was one of the concessions players paid for with millions in revenue money ceded to the owners in that deal.
When the rumors and rumblings increased to a dull roar in 2014, the union again put its foot down: Outside the context of an active CBA negotiation, when the players could bargain for some quid pro quo, that huge additional exposure to risk just wasn't going to happen.
But last week, Green Bay Packers team president Mark Murphy told Jason Wilde of ESPN.com that a compromise could be in the offing: a 17-game regular-season schedule, with three preseason games, could afford the league flexibility to play a lot more international feature games. Could this be the compromise that makes everything work? NFLPA spokesman George Atallah responded on Twitter:
Eric Winston, Bengals offensive tackle and NFLPA president, was more cautious in his response, telling Fox Sports 910 Phoenix he "just doesn't see the point," and that 16 games seems like "plenty." Then he cracked open the door just a little bit: "I never say never."
That's wise, because a 17-game schedule could be a win-win-win. Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio laid out why:
The potential configuration would go like this: (1) 17 regular-season games instead of 16; (2) two preseason games instead of four; (3) a second bye week, which would push the Super Bowl to Presidents’ Day weekend, giving plenty of fans who have been clamoring for the ability to imbibe on a Sunday night the freedom to not show up for work the next day with bloodshot eyes and/or a disdain for loud noises.
Two preseason games? An extra bye week to keep players fresh? The Super Bowl as a literal national holiday? Yeah, that's great for fans.
What about the other concerns? A 17-game season seems less likely to make the entire league's single-season record book irrelevant overnight. Somehow "6.3 percent more risk of injury" sounds a lot more manageable than "12.5 percent more risk of injury"—and even though starters don't play throughout most of the preseason, cutting down to 19 overall games means the real risk increase may even be smaller than that.
Owners won't want to lose ticket revenue, but the increase in national TV money will more than offset that—and it opens up the door to much, much more.
Murphy's hit the nail on the head when he says adding a game lets the NFL do more international games. But imagine: all 32 teams playing 16 neutral-site games a year? Without asking anyone to give up a home game? This goes way beyond more London games.
Yes, every team can tour Germany, Mexico, Japan, Brazil and anywhere else they want to sell tickets. The Bills could play in Toronto without losing a game at the Ralph. Imagine the Los Angeles Rams and [City Name Here] Raiders playing a reunion match in the Los Angeles Coliseum, or Washington hosting the Cowboys in the still-standing RFK. These could be huge one-off events, the kind fans tell each other they were there to see.
The NFL could cash in on the alternate-venue craze college teams have been riding for a over a decade: NFL football in Yankee Stadium, The Big House, Wrigley Field, the Rose Bowl, you name it.
Then, take it to the next level: the future of watching the game. The NFL's been peeling off a game here and there to let tech companies stream online; imagine how much more mojo a Twitter-exclusive game would have if it were a historic event like New England Patriots hosting the New York Giants at Fenway Park?
The opportunities for owners, the league, fans and players just might outweigh the drawbacks.
An extra-long season still poses other problems; it makes it even harder for teams that dominate September, October and November to close in the playoffs—and even easier for teams that were mediocre (or worse) for much of the season to sneak into the postseason and upset deserving squads.
What do you do with fantasy football when many teams are playing out the string (or resting their starters) for Weeks 17, 18 and 19? What if teams start taking a cue from the sport the rest of the world calls "football" and resting star players against weaker matchups, saving them for the stretch run? What if this schedule just plain dilutes the product?
These are the problems the NFL and NFLPA will have to address. But for the first time since 1978, the potential is compelling enough that the two sides need to sit down and address it.