Are you sick of the Super Bowl hype yet? Me too. So let's do something else. Let's have a thought experiment about what the unintended consequences of an 18-game regular season could bring.
Know this: The league wants to go to 18 regular season games.
No one loves football more than I do. But I am opposed to this. I'm the nerd who tunes in to the Hall of Fame Game and actually watches it. By the end of July, I'm so jonesing for football that preseason games seem like a reasonable alternative. But I think the regular season should remain at 16 games.
Lots of folks have hit these points before me, but let's review here anyway.
There's a reason the NFL keeps getting such monster TV ratings. In a 16-game season, every game is crucial. Every game counts. Even in games between bad teams in a division anything can happen; you can't miss a minute. Rex Ryan is right that divisional wins almost count as 1.5 wins in the overall meaning to your standings. I don't want to dilute that.
The word from the owners is that they want the increased revenue. This is where I need some help from readers. I live in LA and we don't have a pro team now that USC is on probation, so I don't have any pro football season ticket buying experience. Can someone tell me if preseason and regular season tickets cost the same? How about parking? Beers and hot dogs?
I'm guessing the owners think more money will come with the television deals, but maybe not (more on that below). Basically, if you have 16 regular season games and four preseason games, your stadium hosts 10 home games, regardless of what you name them.
I guess you could make a case that more regular season games mean more attendance. Or not. Ask the Jacksonville Jaguars about that. And, if someone gives me free tickets to the third preseason game and I get to watch the starters for a half—I'm going.
From what I've been reading, the NFLPA is vehemently opposed to an 18-game regular season. Veterans would be fine cutting the preseason down to two games. Between OTAs, camps and a general "keep yourself in shape all year round" mentality, they don't really need those games to play themselves into football shape.
But rookies and guys on the cusp of making the team definitely do in order to get a taste of what pro football is all about and to get familiar with their new NFL environment.
Plus, will no one think of Hard Knocks in all of this?! What kind of a show will it be if they have to cut it down from five episodes to three? How will I know if I've found my secret jewel backup running back for fantasy? How will I be able to laugh at some moron getting schooled in how the big boys operate? Not inconsequential.
So here's where the thought experiment comes in. Right now, your shortest path to the Super Bowl is 16 regular season games plus three playoff games if you can get a first round bye. That's 19 games. If you don't get that bye, you're looking at 20 games and the last four will be grueling because every single one is an elimination game.
And now you want to have an 18-game regular season, plus three or four playoff games on top of that? The NFL is so violent and injuries are such a fact of life, I just can't see that being sustainable.
If you don't believe me, look at the two QBs who just lost in the championship round. Jay Cutler out with a knee injury, Mark Sanchez walloped by Ike Taylor. Cutler had already missed some time this season, but that was Sanchez's 18th game and he's a studly 24-year-old. What about if you have a brittle 35-year-old QB?
The only people who should be happy about an 18-game schedule are journeymen backup QBs and their agents; they will be at a premium.
Maybe those dudes at Football Outsiders can run the numbers and tell us what an increase in games means in real terms of increased rate of injury. And if you really think it through, more injuries means declining quality of play. I don't want to watch the New England Patriots with no Tom Brady in a meaningless Week 17 game because now we have a longer regular season.
I know we have that issue now, but the NFL has made an effort to split up divisional games so that problem is minimized. I don't know what they have planned for 18 regular season games in order to address this issue.
I can't speak for the players, obviously, but I'll bet that 16 is the absolute limit.
Back to the unintended consequences...
Quick disclaimer: In my example below, I'm using real teams and personnel to give a barstool immediacy to the argument. In no way, shape or form am I implying that these folks would ever do this. It's just a thought experiment. You could substitute any other team/coach/player and make the same point(s).
So, let's say you're New England. You've got your schedule and there are two additional games on it (NFC or AFC—anyone know what the NFL intends?). As a team looking to win a championship, what is your strategy for the season?
Obviously you want to win your division more than anything to get that first round bye. You will go all out to get those six wins against the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills. After that, it is going to be a constant adjusting of tactics. Let's say we're at Week 14. You've won all four divisional games you've played thus far. Your record stands at 10-3. You've had one bye.
One of the three losses is to the Oakland Raiders (in this example, who cares?). They're in so much trouble in their own division that they will not be a tiebreaker. You lost to the Indianapolis Colts, but they just lost Peyton Manning to injury for the year and will not be a threat down the stretch, and you lost to the Dallas Cowboys (not in your conference). Next game up is a rebuilding Carolina Panthers team with a rookie QB. Their record is 1-12.
Why risk playing Brady?
And this is where the high stakes poker game of being a head coach comes in. Maybe suddenly, midweek, Brady shows up on the injury report with some kind of ailment. Status? Probable.
What if Bill Belichick pulls Brady after the first series, later saying they didn't want to "aggravate" the injury? You're telling me that can't happen? This is the mastermind of Spygate. Of course there will be very creative interpretations of the rules. The injury report now is a joke anyway.
Who cares if you lose to Carolina? You've done the math and a loss to them won't hurt you based on where others in your conference stand. Why risk injury to your stars in a meaningless game?
You're telling me that scenario isn't at least a possibility? It is, and at that point, how is that game any different from a preseason game except for the fact that it's played in November? There is no way organizations won't try to game the system. They will relentlessly hunt for any competitive advantage.
But wait, you say! It's a regular season game on TV! You think CBS is going to be happy with drawing Pats-Cats with a rebuilding Panthers club on its third-string QB and the Pats basically sitting their most important player? Nobody tunes in to see the flavor of the month back up for Brady. The potential exists for an uproar.
We as fans need to get this dialog going. Just you watch, 48 hours after the Super Bowl fanfare dies down will come the onslaught of campaigning from both sides on this new CBA. I don't really care about a rookie wage scale, let the players figure that out. Stadium financing is not my forte. But the quality of the games is of tremendous importance to me.
Let's get this conversation started.