The introduction of two more games to the NFL regular season seems inevitable starting in 2012. Whether that's a good idea is certainly up for debate, but what also can be argued are the logistics of two extra games. How will they be incorporated into the schedule, and who will teams play in those two extra games?
Scheduling the Extra Two Games
This is the $64,000 question. Teams will most certainly not play division opponents more than twice a season, because the nice and neat home-and-away series between division opponents has been an NFL staple for quite some time.
While the beautiful symmetry of the current NFL schedule will be all for naught, there is a nice backup plan for an 18-game schedule with minimal change. By dropping the two conference games against teams that finished in the same position of the standings and adding four games against a second conference division, all is well.
Here's a visual representation, using the New York Giants' current slate for 2012:
1. Home-and-away series vs. Dallas, Philadelphia, and Washington. (6)
2. One game each vs. NFC South opponents. (4)
3. One game each vs. AFC North opponents. (4)
4. One game each vs. NFC West opponents. (4)
That adds up to 18. There would be a rotation among conference divisions each year. So the NFC East would play the South and West in 2012, but then the South would be dropped in favor of the North in 2013.
Adding a game against a natural out-of-conference rival each year (Dallas vs. Houston, San Francisco vs. Oakland, etc.) is a messy proposition. How can you work that in each year to keep scheduling tidy, and who would teams without natural rivals (Denver for example) play each season?
Another option, in which natural rivals could play every other year, would involve teams playing two out-of-conference divisions each year. The snafu there is that a team like the Giants would be playing each AFC team every two years, but they would play 12 other NFC teams every three years. I don't see that happening, especially because it's best to break as many conference tiebreakers as possible should the situation call for it come playoff time.
The 18-game format outlined above makes the most sense.
Don't expect to see teams receiving one bye in Week 4 and playing 15 consecutive games to finish the season. If the NFL decides to keep a one-bye system, expect to see teams receiving their bye no earlier than Week 5.
What makes practical sense for players' safety and health is for the NFL to adopt a two-bye system, like in 1993, and then split the season up into fifths.
Weeks 1-4: Every team plays.
Weeks 5-8: Eight teams receive a bye each week.
Weeks 9-12: Every team plays.
Weeks 13-16: Eight teams receive a bye each week.
Weeks 17-20: Every team plays.
This eliminates bye complaints, such as a team getting a Week 4 bye in the current 16-game system, because all teams would receive byes during the same bye periods.
There is a calendar snafu here. The NFL is not interested in starting their season during Labor Day weekend, like D-I college football does. With this in mind, there will be three regular season weeks in January, and a Super Bowl date of February 24 provided the league still keeps that buffer week between the conference Championship Games and Super Bowl Sunday.
Bye Week Verdict
If the NFL doesn't mind playing a Super Bowl on the last Sunday in February, the 20-week system is the best option. Do you really see that happening, though?
The Canadian Football League, which plays 18 games, has a 19-week, one-bye system. In the eight-team league, four teams receive a bye in Week 8, and the other four teams receive a bye in Week 9.
In the same vein, the NFL will probably bunch one bye week for each team around the middle of the season, probably in the neighborhood of Weeks 5-11 or so. Expect to see a President's Day weekend Super Bowl in the future, as well as early February Championship Games.
53-man rosters will most certainly be expanded. By how many people will be anyone's guess. Sixty seems like a nice, even number.
Also, a thought from WFAN radio's Mike Francesa regarding injury lists makes perfect sense. The NFL will need to adopt a baseball-like system, where teams can stash players on disabled lists for a handful of games, instead of losing a roster spot and waiting for them to return. Three, six, and nine-game injury lists makes sense.