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.

Union-Crew 5 things: Still in good position, Jim Curtin's club looks to rebound

Union-Crew 5 things: Still in good position, Jim Curtin's club looks to rebound

Union at Crew
7:30 p.m. on TCN

Despite being dominated by Toronto FC on Saturday, the Union (9-9-7) managed to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, thanks to a handful of fortunate results around the league. But if the club wants to better its odds for the postseason, it needs to take care of business at Mapfre Stadium on Wednesday night against the Columbus Crew (4-8-11).

Here are five things to know for the matchup:

1. Playoff push
It hasn’t been a convincing few weeks for the Union. Although the club still sits fourth in the Eastern Conference despite one win in its last six games, it needs points to stay afloat. That quest begins on Wednesday against the Crew.

“The focus is getting points,” Union defender Richie Marquez said. “For us, home or away, we need three points because we need to solidify that playoff spot.”

As of now the Union are in snug playoff position with 34 points — one ahead of the Montreal Impact and six in front of D.C. United and Orlando City for the sixth and final playoff spot. On the plus side, the club is one point behind the New York Red Bulls with a game in hand.

“It’s a push to get into the playoffs and try to see how high we can end up in the table,” Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said. “It’s important we don’t look too much at the standings because anything can happen in this league. It’s all really tight. It’s important we go to Columbus with the right mentality and come back to Philly with three points.”

2. Coming off a loss
Speaking of the playoff push, the Union’s dream of being a top-two seed in the East took a major hit on Saturday in a 3-1 bashing by Toronto FC. The loss put Toronto up six and New York City FC up seven on the Union. 

Worst of all, it crushed all Union momentum coming out of a 4-0 win over the New England Revolution a week prior. Still, the club maintains its confidence heading into Wednesday.

“I feel good about this team and the players we have,” Bedoya said. “The goals we gave up were too easy. We have talent on this team, but there’s little things we have to fix. Once we get those right, we’ll be tough to break down.” 

As Jim Curtin explained, the short turnaround from Saturday actually works in the Union’s favor. 

“We were smart with how we managed the past two days in terms of getting the guys massages, taking care of their bodies, eating right and getting enough sleep,” he said. “They’ll be ready to go, they’re itching to get the bad taste out of their mouth after the Toronto game.”

3. Win-starved Crew
With the help of Ethan Finlay and Federico Higuain, the Crew took down the floundering Revolution over the weekend. But that’s nothing to celebrate over. It was just the club’s fourth win of the season and second since May 28. 

The Crew are currently closer to having the lowest point total in MLS than a playoff spot.

“It’s been tough,” Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said. “It’s a team that I believe in deeply but it’s natural that confidence dips when you don’t get the results. It’s about believing in our playing style and fine-tuning things, approving in some areas. I think we did that in the last game.” 

Though the Crew attempt to climb out of the basement on Wednesday, they know what they are up against. The Union took the first season meeting against the Crew, 2-1, and the second, 3-2. 

“They added Bedoya, who is a quality player,” Berhalter said. “Other than that, it’s similar to what they’ve been doing all year with [C.J.] Sapong and talented players behind him. Bedoya makes a good difference there, but they are a solid group and they’ll play with intensity. From our side, we’ll have to be smart how we approach the game.”

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: Facing the Crew twice this season, the Union have five goals. Chris Pontius has three of them. The Union forward scored the brace on March 12, then buried another on June 1. 

Crew: MLS rookie Ola Kamara leads the Crew with 10 goals, including one against the Union on June 1. Since May 28, the forward has 10 goals and one assist in 12 games.

5. This and that
• Facing the Crew has always been tough for the Union. Including two wins this season, the Union are 6-10-1 against the Crew all-time.

• The Union have only suffered back-to-back losses twice this season, and both times it happened in the club’s last 10 games.

• Of Kamara’s 10 goals this season, six have come at home. 

• The first-ever meeting between the Union and Crew happened on Aug. 5, 2010, and was a 2-1 loss for the Union. Sebastien Le Toux scored a penalty kick but Steven Lenhart buried the brace.

How Jim Schwartz changed Stephen Tulloch's career

How Jim Schwartz changed Stephen Tulloch's career

Stephen Tulloch hasn’t just had a successful NFL career under Jim Schwartz. He’s had a successful career because of Jim Schwartz.

“I have a lot of love and respect for Coach Schwartz,” Tulloch said following his first practice with the Eagles (see story).

On Tuesday, the Eagles’ newest linebacker credited Schwartz for the Titans’ drafting him with the 116th overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft. He said Schwartz pushed for him, “when nobody else really wanted to go after” him.

“I’ll leave you with this story,” Tulloch began.

“So in 2006, I go to the NFL combine. I measure in at 5-10 and some change, whatever I was. It was the second day of the draft and [the Titans] were about to draft a guy from another school, so Coach Schwartz goes into [Jeff] Fisher’s office and makes a little tape of my highlights from college, and (former Titans linebackers coach) Dave McGinnis at the time. He changed Coach Fisher’s mind and Floyd Reese at the time was the general manager. I was the 116th pick in the [2006] draft. That was it. I came to Tennessee and the rest was history.”

So, who was the player the Titans almost drafted?

“I’m not gonna put it out there,” he said. “It was another guy and I’m fortunate enough to get drafted and still be here in the league.”

The decision worked out well for the Titans. Eventually, Tulloch became a starter and played five total years in Tennessee before moving on to Detroit. 

As for the other linebackers in the 2006 draft, well, Tulloch was one of 15 linebackers taken in the fourth round or later in 2006. To date, Tulloch has started 111 games. The other 14 have started a combined 138.

The other two linebackers taken in the fourth round in 2006 were Leon Williams to the Browns and Jamar Williams to the Bears. Leon Williams (pick No. 110) last played in 2012 and started just 12 NFL games, while Jamar Williams (pick No. 120) played five years and has just three career starts to his name.

Tulloch is still going strong. And he owes a lot to Jim Schwartz.

“I always thank him for the opportunity I had in Tennessee,” Tulloch said.

Jake Thompson left searching for answers after latest rough start

Jake Thompson left searching for answers after latest rough start

BOX SCORE

CHICAGO — On the whole, the Phillies have made steady progress in their rebuild this season.

Cameron Rupp has improved. Maikel Franco has had a nice year. Odubel Herrera, even with his recent inconsistency, has had more ups than downs. Cesar Hernandez has been on a good roll. Freddy Galvis has 36 extra-base hits, and Tommy Joseph has opened eyes with his power. In the bullpen, Hector Neris and Edubray Ramos have shown that they just might be future studs.
 
For a good chunk of the season, the young starting pitching has shown promise, as well.
 
But lately, that corner of the team has taken some hits. Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin were both ruled out for the remainder of the season last week with elbow and knee injuries, respectively, and hard-throwing Vince Velasquez has been tagged for 19 earned runs in 16 1/3 innings over his last three starts.
 
Jake Thompson’s first four major-league starts haven’t exactly inspired confidence, either. The 22-year-old right-hander was hit hard in a 9-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday night (see Instant Replay). He gave up eight hits, including five for extra bases, and seven runs as his ERA swelled to 9.78. Only Mike Maddux (9.98) in 1986 had a higher ERA for the Phillies in his first four big-league starts.
 
“I’m not used to this,” Thompson said after the defeat. “I feel certain that I’m a lot better than my performance has indicated.”
 
Few pitchers come to the big leagues and dazzle right away. There is a learning curve and occasionally growing pains. But no one expected Thompson to have this much trouble out of the chute, not after what he did in his final 11 starts at Triple A Lehigh Valley.
 
Thompson went 8-0 in those 11 starts and recorded a 1.21 ERA while allowing just 10 earned runs in 74 1/3 innings. He gave up just 52 hits and 18 walks over that span while striking out 42.
 
In four starts with the big club, he has given up 22 hits and 21 earned runs in 19 1/3 innings. He has walked 13 and struck out 13.
 
He was advertised as a control and command pitcher. He has yet to show that in the majors.
 
“A lot of it has to do with his age and, I think, the fact he’s in the big leagues for the first time trying to make a good impression,” manager Peter Mackanin said. “He probably feels like he needs to make perfect pitches every time. All he’s got to do is keep the ball down. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff. He relies on command and control and he hasn’t shown that. I attribute a lot of that to his youth and inexperience.”
 
So does Rupp, the catcher.
 
“How many guys do you see come to the big leagues at 22 years old and just flat out dominate every time they go out?” Rupp said. “Not very many. He's young. It was his first time in Triple A this year and he pitched really well and now he's got a chance in the big leagues. I'm sure he feels like there's pressure. When you come up and you pitch so well all year and then you finally get your opportunity, you want to impress. It puts a lot on you. And as a kid, you've got to be able to control it and it's tough. It's hard.

“Nobody wants to see anybody fail. It's hard to go through. It's something that's going to make him better when he does finally figure it out."
 
Two of the walks Thompson gave up Tuesday night became runs. He gave up back-to-back homers to Jose Abreu and Justin Morneau in the fifth inning as the White Sox turned it into a rout.
 
“Just too many pitches up in the strike zone,” Mackanin said. “Everything he threw was thigh high, waist high. He couldn’t get the ball down. It’s as simple as that.”
 
Thompson concurred with his manager.
 
“The issue is pretty evident,” he said. “I'm not throwing strikes and when I am throwing strikes, they're not good strikes. It’s a frustrating thing because it's a relatively easy thing to do. I don't really have the answer right now to fix it.”
 
The game moves fast at the big-league level and confidence can become bruised quickly. Thompson said his confidence was unshaken. Still, Phillies officials have to be careful that this difficult baptism to the majors does not snowball and become something that adversely impacts Thompson's growth.
 
“It’s something that you’re concerned about and I’m concerned about,” Mackanin said.
 
Concerned enough that Thompson might not make his next start?
 
Mackanin said he expected Thompson to stay in the rotation, but added that he would speak with general manager Matt Klentak on the topic.
 
“I don’t want to see him keep getting beat up and keep struggling like this,” Mackanin said. “We’ll talk about it and see what Matt wants to do.”