Do We Really Want 18 Games?

Do We Really Want 18 Games?

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.

Diluted product

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.

Competitive balance

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.

Invalid argument

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.

Terrible precedent

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.

Late goal lifts Penguins over Sharks in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

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Late goal lifts Penguins over Sharks in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

PITTSBURGH -- To their credit, the Sharks regrouped after a miserable first period at Consol Energy Center in which it looked like they might get run out of the building.

It wasn’t enough, though, as Nick Bonino’s late third period goal pushed the Penguins to a 3-2 win in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

On the game-winner, Brent Burns lost his stick and couldn’t prevent Kris Letang from finding Bonino in front of the net with Paul Martin defending the slot. Bonino flipped it through Martin Jones at 17:27 of the final frame.

The Sharks went to the power play with 2:09 to go, but couldn’t tie it up.

Game 2 is in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

The Penguins dominated the first period, only to have the Sharks completely turn the tables in the second, resulting in a 2-2 tie after 40 minutes.

The Penguins had the Sharks on their heels for virtually the entire opening frame, outshooting San Jose 15-4 and scoring a pair.

The first came at 12:46 of the first. On a rush, Justin Schultz’s shot from the high slot hit the glove of Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and rookie Bryan Rust was there to smack in the loose puck.

Just one minute and two seconds later, the Penguins upped their cushion. Sidney Crosby tracked down a loose puck in the corner ahead of Justin Braun, calmly played the puck off his backhand and whipped a cross-ice pass to Conor Sheary. Another rookie, Sheary whizzed a wrist shot past Jones’ far shoulder.

It was evident early in the second, though, that San Jose had regrouped, as Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski both had good looks at the net. They broke through on an early power play courtesy of Tomas Hertl, who curled in a pass from down low off of Olli Maatta at 3:02.

Pittsburgh withstood a continual push from the Sharks for much of the period until Marleau’s late score. After Couture outworked Maatta deep in the offensive zone and pushed the puck to the point to Burns, Marleau secured Burns’ rebound and wrapped it around at 18:12.

Burns had two assists, and made a strong defensive play with about three minutes left in the first, backchecking hard and lifting up Carl Hagelin’s stick on a breakaway.

Special teams

The Sharks were 1-for-2 on the power play, on Hertl’s second man advantage goal of the playoffs. They are 18-for-65 in the postseason (27.6 percent).

Pittsburgh went 0-for-3, generating five shots on goal. The Pens are 15-for-67 overall (22.3 percent).

Marleau was whistled for an illegal check to the head of Rust in the third period, sending the 24-year-old to the dressing room for a brief stretch.

In goal

Jones and Murray were each making their first career starts in the Stanley Cup Final. Jones took the loss with 38 saves, while Murray stopped 24 San Jose shots.

Lineup

Sharks forward Matt Nieto remained out with an upper body injury.

Pavelski saw his seven-game point streak (5g, 5a) come to an end. Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz increased his point streak to six games (3g, 4a).

Up next

The Sharks are 5-11 all-time when losing Game 1 of a playoff series, but 1-0 this year as they came back to defeat the Blues in the Western Conference Final.

Teams that win Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final have gone on to win the championship 78 percent of the time (59-18). The last team to win the Cup after losing Game 1 was the 2011 Bruins.

NL East Wrap: Matt Harvey gets back on track in Mets' win over White Sox

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NL East Wrap: Matt Harvey gets back on track in Mets' win over White Sox

NEW YORK -- On the mound in the seventh inning for the first time this season, Matt Harvey gave up his first walk of the game and his second hit, leading to a sacrifice bunt and a second-and-third jam.

"You kind of think about the worst at that point," he said. "You start getting some negative thoughts that creep in your head."

But 11 days after disappointed fans at Citi Field booed him like a villain, the Dark Knight was back - at least for one afternoon.

Harvey retired Todd Frazier on a foulout and J.B. Shuck on a grounder to escape trouble, Neil Walker homered off Jose Quintana on the second pitch of the bottom half and the New York Mets beat Chicago 1-0 Monday to send the reeling White Sox to their seventh straight loss.

"Today's a big first step," Mets manager Terry Collins said.

Addison Reed and Jeurys Familia got six straight outs to complete the two-hitter, preserving Harvey's first win since May 8. Harvey struck out six, walked two and threw four pitches of 98-98.5 mph after not topping 97.5 mph previously this season. He threw 61 of 87 pitches for strikes (see full recap).

Mallex Smith's 3-run triple powers Braves past Giants
ATLANTA -- Mike Foltynewicz is showing he can be more than just a fastball pitcher - and that he can be part of the Braves' long-term rotation.

Foltynewicz continued his recent upswing by allowing only three hits and one run in six-plus innings, Mallex Smith hit a three-run triple and Atlanta beat Jeff Samardzija and the San Francisco Giants 5-3 on Monday.

The Braves survived San Francisco's two-run, ninth-inning rally. They have won three of four and are 5-21 at home, still easily the worst in the majors.

Foltynewicz (2-2) gave up a leadoff homer to Brandon Belt in the second inning, but allowed only one other runner to advance to second.

Foltynewicz, 24, has had other recent strong starts, including eight scoreless innings in a 5-0 win at Kansas City on May 14. His start on Monday may have been his most impressive demonstration of altering the speeds of his fastball while mixing in a curveball and slider (see full recap).

Locke tosses three-hit shutout against Marlins
MIAMI -- Jeff Locke tossed a three-hitter and the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Miami Marlins 10-0 on Monday night.

Gregory Polanco's grand slam, Sean Rodriguez's two-run homer, and David Freese's four hits helped power the offense for the Pirates, who won the first of a four-game series in Miami. The first two games were originally scheduled to be played in Puerto Rico, but were moved due to concerns of the Zika virus.

Locke (4-3) struck out one and did not walk a batter while throwing 67 of 105 pitches for strikes. It was his first complete game in 101 career starts. Locke retired 19 straight at one point and needed just six pitches to get through the seventh inning.

The announced crowd of 10,856 was a season-low for the Marlins, who entered the day averaging just under 20,000 (see full recap).

Pete Mackanin on deciding Ryan Howard's playing time: 'I think about it all the time'

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Pete Mackanin on deciding Ryan Howard's playing time: 'I think about it all the time'

A day after he made comments in Chicago that alluded to the trimming of Ryan Howard’s playing time against right-handed pitchers, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin sat at his desk, surrounded by reporters, and was pressed for 10 minutes on the issue of his declining, expensive and struggling first baseman and franchise icon.

Howard, of course, was penciled into the lineup in the cleanup spot against righty Tanner Roark for Monday’s 4-3 loss to the visiting Washington Nationals (see game recap).

A question of was barely out of a reporter’s mouth when Mackanin quickly interjected a “hell yes.”

It’s the hardest decision - what to do with the struggling Howard - he’s had to make in his brief time managing the Philadelphia Phillies.

“I think about it all the time,” Mackanin said.

“That’s the hard part of this job. It’s not just running the game, it’s handling the players.”

For now, Mackanin said, he hasn’t felt the need to talk to Howard about it. Howard, who sat Sunday for the second time in eight days against a righty, said Sunday he was unaware his manager was intending on reducing his playing time against righties (see story).

Once a platoon situation at first base, it appears the Phillies are going to take a longer look at rookie Tommy Joseph against right-handed pitchers in the near future.

“If I was going to sit (Howard) on the bench and he wasn’t going to play anymore, I’d have that conversation,” Mackanin said. “I think what I said was pretty obvious.”

“I didn’t say I was going to bench Howard.”

He didn’t Monday. Howard had good numbers against Roark, something he didn’t have against Sunday’s starter for the Cubs, John Lackey. So it looks like Mackanin’s decision will be based on matchups.

In his second at-bat Monday, a second straight strikeout on the night and 12th in his last 22 at-bats, Howard was way late on a 93-mph fastball on the outer half of the plate.

But he looked much better in his final two at-bats of the night.

In the bottom of the sixth, he drove a Roark changeup to the warning track deep in right-center, but Ben Revere closed quickly and made the catch.

In his last at-bat, after Maikel Franco led off the ninth inning with a double, Howard jumped on a first-pitch fastball from Jonathan Papelbon and drove a double to the gap in left-centerfield, scoring Franco and putting the tying run in scoring position with no outs.

Those two swings were the ones Mackanin said Monday afternoon he “knew” were there. He later corrected himself and said it was more of a situation of “hope.”

Howard went 1 for 4 on the night. His May average is now .106.

“He needed to come through with a big hit and that was a huge hit, put the tying run at second base,” Mackanin said. “It was good to see.”

The Phillies are slated to face a righty in their next six games before facing Jon Lester and the Cubs at home next Monday. Joseph, who is hitting .278 with three home runs in his first 36 Major League at-bats, figures to get the start in the majority of those.

It’s a decision Mackanin says he’s going to make on a day-by-day basis.

He was asked if the front office, which is also in a tough spot and may have to do something soon, gave him any input on what to do.

“They don’t tell me who to play and when to play them,” Mackanin said. “I know that they want me to mix in Joseph against right-handers so that he doesn’t stagnate. That’s pretty much all I go by right now.”

A suggestion from upstairs isn’t unprecedented. It has already happened before during the young 2016 season.

“They asked me to - as bad as (Tyler) Goeddel looked early in the season - they asked me if I could try to mix him in a little more,” Mackanin said. “I said sure. I did, and he started hitting better. So now he’s playing more. Here we go, if you want to play more than you gotta hit.

“There’s nothing set in stone.”