Over the past several weeks, Roger Goodell has been running around from training camp to training camp, including our very own Birds' nest in Lehigh, and a major part of his agenda has been promoting the NFL's plan to extend the regular season by two games. His point is simple: the fans overwhelmingly demand more football, particularly at the expense of two lousy exhibition games.
So why am I left wondering whether that is actually the case? We all agree the preseason is boring and the number of games maddening, and sure, the premise of a longer season sounds like bliss to any hardcore football fan. The commissioner isn't exactly being up front with his presentation of the facts though, and when we review the many issues associated with lengthening the season, we find there are some definite flaws with the league's approach.
The most common concern with an 18-game season is more games will naturally lead to a greater number of injuries. Professional football is already a war of attrition. In any given week, every team in the league could reach double digits on the injury report. We're so worried about players getting hurt, there was debate as to whether or not Stewart Bradley should participate at Flight Night, a standard practice featuring essentially zero contact.
It's not just the physical toll it will take on many, many human bodies, but how it will impact the integrity of the game. Every season, several teams that are projected to be successful and possibly even compete for a Super Bowl are completely decimated by injuries by the time January rolls around. Think Chris Redman handing off to Jason Snelling for the Falcons in Week 13 last season.
Additional games are likely to drive more clubs to look toward their backup quarterbacks come the post-season. More stars will fall across the board, and their replacements are a collection of first- and second-year players taken toward the end of some recent draft (or not at all), and journeymen who hang around the league because either they have have incredible potential, or they're solid special teamers. Those are not the players fans are paying to see.
Even if a few teams manage to survive, for our enjoyment they can dispatch of the last few Daunte Culpeppers and Charlie Fryes during the Wild Card and Divisional Rounds of the playoffs. Does that sound even remotely like the best possible product?
The rest of the problem
Several teams—including the Eagles—opt to rest most if not all of their valuable players during the final few weeks of the season. Even while chasing a perfect record, the Colts chose to bench Peyton Manning in the second half of a winnable game this past year. Of course, the Colts weren't even going to play in the Super Bowl if Peyton Manning went down in an otherwise meaningless Week 16 contest against the Jets.
This or some similar scenario has been playing out on multiple sidelines every season. What I can promise is that will not improve if the schedule grows to 18 games.
There are two main reasons coaches are able to employ this strategy. One is they can't change their team's post-season seeding for better or worse based on the result in the final game of the season. This won't necessarily be affected one way or the other. Two is because one team has built such a lead in the standings, they can't possibly be caught.
That is going to happen with much greater frequency, especially if the injury point proves true. A dominant team in a weak division can seal their fate much sooner with so many extra games to play. Obviously they can still vie for playoff byes and home field advantage, but there would still be enough variance in records some years where much of that would be settled well before the season reached its conclusion. Even with that much incentive still on the line, some coaches will toy with resting players anyway.
Basically, the NFL will have replaced the meaningless extra preseason games with even more meaningless regular season games. That's not the trade-off people are hoping for.
This might sound strange, but another reason the league shouldn't add two games is because it will eliminate the symmetry of the current scheduling scheme.
The schedule is strictly governed and works the same every year. Two games against division opponents. One game against each member of another division in the same conference, on rotation. One game against each member of another division in the opposite conference, on rotation. A game against a member of the remaining two divisions in the same conference based on their finish the previous season, balancing the strength of scheduling. The rules also assure every team will have the opportunity to play every other team in the NFL at their home stadium at least one time every eight years.
The logic is flawless. The schedules in baseball, basketball, and hockey come off as completely arbitrary in comparison. For instance, the Phillies play random teams from the American League every season, but nobody whose name isn't Bud Selig can explain why. Is there some reason the Sixers played the Bulls four times last season, but only had three tilts against the Wizards, or why they play division rivals the same amount as other conference opponents?
Call me crazy, but I like the way the NFL's current system works. However, if they add two games, they'll likely be or feel just as arbitrary as a three-game series with the Twins.
Nobody is standing up in defense of the current four-game preseason format. Two of the games are almost entirely worthless, and the fact that they charge full price for such an inferior product is insulting.
What's also insulting though is the fact that the NFL would even attempt to use this as an argument for adding games to the regular season. What does one have to do with the other? People aren't necessarily complaining there isn't enough football, they're complaining that there is too much bad football, which for some unknown reason costs the same as the real thing.
I'm sure there are plenty of fans who fully support additional games, but it's faulty reasoning to deduce that every person who thinks the league should shorten the preseason in turn wants to tack those contests onto a longer schedule. Prior to this becoming such a publicized story, I have no memory of any fan pushing for exhibition games to be counted, only that they be done away with entirely.
Don't you wish they would just call this what it is? It's a play to increase revenues. Shortening the preseason is just a byproduct of the business plan, which is of course to maximize profits. More games equals more dollars coming in at stadiums and from television deals. At this point, having licensed everything else there is to sell, from rights for video game to apparel, down to the names of the buildings they play in, the owners likely view this as one of the last remaining means to earn a few more bucks.
And on that note, the increase to 18 games will likely mark a fundamental shift in the direction of the National Football League. First, they increase the number of games. Next, they continue to add overseas venues to the slate. Finally, they'll look to expand the league, possibly even create an international division.
Football is great, but has achieved its status as the most popular sport in North America by focusing on competitive balance and fan presentation. They've maximized the number of televised games, other NFL programming, and the amount of online content, which has all been great for us.
When they start tinkering with the number of games, continue pushing the envelope in other areas of the world, and ultimately wind up expanding, they are messing with that balance that is a major part of its appeal. In the end, the NFL could find themselves in the same position as Major League Baseball and the NBA, where certain franchises are rendered irrelevant for eras at a time because there simply aren't enough quality players to go around.
That's not going to happen simply because the league adds a couple of games to the schedule, but once those walls have fallen, it's only a matter of time until owners start looking toward the next big cash grab.