The NFL's Proposed 18-game Regular Season Schedule

>> 1.21.2011

If' you read this blog regularly, then you know about the NFL’s proposed “enhanced 20-game schedule,” consisting of two 2 preseason games and 18 regular season games.  Commissioner Goodell, in more places than I care to link, has stated that they’re listening to the fans’ concerns about the lackluster preseason games. To his credit, those are real—remember the Lions’ sparsely-attended preseason closer against Buffalo? The fourth preseason games are played almost entirely by spots 54-72 on the roster, the guys who aren’t making the team.  For the most part, they’re completely futile.

However, eighteen regular season games are simply too many. It increases risk of injury—and when the NFL is supposed to be more concerned about player health than ever, it’s hypocritical. It’s also part of an obvious cash grab by the owners—attendance is clearly going to be better for two games that count than for two games that don’t, and TV deals for an 18-game season are going to be richer. However, neither of those problems are my biggest concern.

The game of football has always been based on the idea that it’s the best against the best.  At first, even the specialization of offense and defense didn’t exist; it was simply the best eleven against the best eleven.  When U-M head coach Fritz Crisler invented “two-platoon football” to give his Wolverines a chance against mighty Army, players’ skills could be maximized, and they could stay fresher longer. Over the next sixty years, specialization, rotation, and have slowly, gradually played an increased role in football—but always, there’s been an inviolable depth chart.  It’s your best against their best, every single Sunday—and your best third-down back will get rotational reps over your second-best third down back.

This is unusual in the sports world.  See MLB’s 162-game season, the NHL and NBA’s 82-game seasons, or the MLS’s 45-game season: you don’t always get best against best. Jim Leyland regularly infuriates Tigers fans by resting his players on a set schedule; no matter how badly the Tigers need a given game is, if  it’s Magglio Ordonez’ day off, he sits.  Imagine this applied to the NFL: the Patriots come to town for Thanksgiving—the Lions’ only national showcase game!—and Tom Brady (secretly battling a stress fracture) sits.  After all, it’s only the Lions, right?

Imagine all the fans who bought tickets expecting to see Brady play! Imagine if Brian Hoyer couldn’t engineer the same fourth-quarter explosion Brady did and the Lions won—the victory would have been hollow.  Meanwhile, the NFL’s most marketable superstar would have been on the bench in a baseball cap, helplessly watching his team take an “L” so that he can be fresh for the middle of February.  It goes against everything we’ve ever seen as football fans, and it will ruin the whole point of the NFL.

This is the key point: the NFL is king because it has the best product. Watching the NFL, at home or on TV, is the best sports experience going. If they expand to 18 games, they’ll have to expand the rosters, too—and those players in roster slots 54 to 72? They’ll be playing in games that will determine playoff berths in January, not functionally scrimmaging against each other in September. An eighteen game schedule dilutes the quality of the NFL.

It takes the NFL’s two key selling points, its superstars and its parity, and waters them down.  Nobody wants to pay seventy bucks to see scrubs against scrubs in a meaningless game, but nobody wants to pay seventy bucks to see scrubs against scrubs in a game that counts, either.

Recently, the NFLPA hosted a conference call (and I promise you, I’ll have more about that in upcoming posts). I the panel asked about this very thing, and Jets safety Jim Leonhard—on the shelf for these playoffs due to a season-ending injury—reflected my own thoughts on the issue:

“We love to play football, that’s what we want to do. Whatever the decision comes down to be, we’re going to do it and we’re going to be glad to do it . . . amongst fans, there’s a lot of debate, even with the current system, that the Super Bowl champion, the champion of this league, doesn’t necessarily go the best team, but the team that can stay the healthiest throughout the season.  If you add two more games I think it just adds to that debate. It’s such a long season, and to play at a high level for four or five months is extremely difficult, and the longer you make the season, you’re going to see more ups and downs with the level of play.”

Again, look at baseball: the teams that seem like locks for the World Series in April and May rarely meet in October.  In basketball, we need only look at our own 2005-06 Detroit Pistons, who started off the season 35-5, murdering just about everyone along the way.  They went 29-13 in the back half of the season, though, and were knocked out of the playoffs by the eventual champions, the Miami Heat (who went 23-17 in the first half). 

We’ve even seen it, just the edge of it, in the NFL.  In 2007, the New England Patriots dominated the NFL like never before seen: 38-14, 38-14, 38-7, 34-13, 34-17, 48-27, 49-28, 52-7, 24-20, 56-10 . . . the Patriots, with Randy Moss and Tom Brady, had neatly solved the NFL.  They were the most dominant, two-phase-of-the-game team I’ve ever seen, and I grew up worshipping the Montana-era 49ers.  In the Super Bowl, though, they of course failed to finish their incredible 19-0 run.  They lost that Super Bowl to the New York Giants—who two months before had been lucky to escape Ford Field with a W after one of the more abysmal football games I’d ever seen two teams play.  Even now, in a season where Lovie Smith was supposed to be coaching for his job this year, the Bears’ astonishing total lack of injuries have propelled them to the NFC Championship Game—where the injury-decimated Packers will probably beat them. anyway.

So, NFL, I implore you: don't ruin the football. Don't make it so starters are healthy scratches. Don't make the sport of football more about "who's hot" heading into the playoffs than who the best team is. You have the most balanced, competitive regular season in sports; it’s a big reason for your success.  Don't make wins hollow and losses acceptable.

Technorati Tags: nfl,detroit lions,nfl cba,18-game season,nflpa,jim leonhard,new england patriots,chicago bears,green bay packers


Hyperion Ecta,  January 21, 2011 at 7:16 PM  

Sorry Ty, but I don't agree at all.

Sure, 18 games may increase the occurance of injuries, but you make it sound as if every player will be seriously injured because those two extra games. I just don't believe that one little bit. Injuries are a part of sport, and something that every team must take into account and overcome. An 18 game schedule will not decimate a squad anymore than a 16 game schedule would. Maybe, Tom Brady gets injured in one of these extra games, but how does that matter to him being injured in a pre-season contest?

I watch a lot of sport, especially Rugby League, and it has a 24 game schedule, in which they play 80 minute games, offence and defence, with few breaks. Of course there are injuries, but not abundantly so, and it's seriously competitive. If players cannot take a 18 game schedule fitness-wise, then maybe they need to take a look at themselves physically, because lots of sports do as much if not more in their seasons.

As far as I'm concerned, an 18 game schedule gives me two extra meaningful games to watch, instead of two pre-season games where scrubs dominate the playing time. Plus, it may give an unnoticed player a better chance to shine and make a playing roster if he's on national tv while playing special teams, rather than playing a full half with fewer people watching.

Like many changes that happen in sports, there's always an uproar at first, but the sport and the fans get used to it because it benefits the sport as a whole.

Great site Ty, keep up the good work.

telemakhos,  January 21, 2011 at 11:20 PM  

I'm sure that every time the schedule has gotten longer, the same concerns have been voiced. I don't think it will make a significant impact, but I didn't exactly hear people calling for this. The people pushing this issue aren't responding to fan concerns - They're padding their pockets. They aren't addressing officiating or rule changes like they should. They're changing something that doesn't need changing.

James Smith,  January 22, 2011 at 12:21 AM  

I think your first point, about injuries going up, is really the important one. Has Goodell ever said how lengthening the sched can be consistent with protecting players?

Angus Osborne,  January 22, 2011 at 3:11 AM  

Hyperion Ecta -

NFL is a way more dangerous game than Rugby League for injuries. The padding and helmets encourage NFL players to make much higher impact collisions, and the rules allow players to hit each other much more often than league where only the ball carrier can be hit.

(I do believe league is supposed to be really bad for long-term head injuries).

Hyperion Ecta,  January 22, 2011 at 6:02 AM  

Angus Osborne -

Oh, I don't know about that Angus. While I do agree that the helmets and padding may encourage more unorthodox hitting, it doesn't necessarily mean that they make higher impact collisions. I'd say that the collisions are of equal strength, the only topper is that players sometimes lead with the helmet in the NFL, giving them some extra force.

As for the other point, let's say that a DT or DE plays 40-50 snaps in a game, and in those snaps will only make 5 or so tackle, maybe 10 if he's lucky. Sure there's other contact but that pretty negligible. The Rugby League equivalent, a Prop or a Second Rower, will probably make 10-15 Hit ups (Runs) plus another 20-30+ tackles. That's a heck of a lot more physical contact, meaning more chance for the occurance of an injury and as I've said before, I believe the impact potential is similar.

I think you'll find that many injuries occur innocuously, such as falling wrong in a pile, which can happen at anytime in both sports.

Ty,  January 22, 2011 at 10:41 AM  

Hyperion Ecta--

Well, as I said, it's not just injuries--it's that teams will start resting their starters. That's not just because of injuries, but because it's two more games, two more weeks of practice, extending the season out from the first week of September to the middle of February.
p baseball and hockey--IMO, that's not football. It waters down the regular season too much.



Ty,  January 22, 2011 at 11:02 AM  

Sorry, comment partially eaten. I meant to say,the NFL is already at the tipping point--the undisputed best team all year usually has its hands full with the "team that got hot." I think going to 18 will push it past that tipping point, and make it like hockey or baseball, where the playoff are a "second season."


Ty,  January 22, 2011 at 11:08 AM  


Maybe I'm playing Chicken Little, but the net result of this will be neutral, at best. You're right, the owners need to be honest--it's a cash grab, not giving us what we're asking for.


Ty,  January 22, 2011 at 11:18 AM  

James Smith--

Not to my knowledge. He usually deflects the point by saying "we have to try to find the balance," or similar.


Anonymous,  January 22, 2011 at 11:38 AM  

sorry, but i have to play devil's advocate here. aren't you in effect arguing for going back to a 14 game schedule and/or contraction? fewer teams means you will see better talent in every game. fewer games by the really basic logic being used (and i mean that with the utmost respect, you're far more intelligent than i am and usually go far deeper into the numbers)equals fewer injuries. if you are going to argue why an 18 game schedule is "going too far", then shouldn't you "complete the process" and explain why the 16 game schedule hasn't gone too far already? as to the "meaningless regular season games" concept, we have that already! see: 2009 colts (and many others) pulling all their starters the last two games of the season because they already had their playoff seed locked up. love the site, by the way!

telemakhos,  January 22, 2011 at 12:54 PM  

Hyperion Ecta-

I think the biggest concern is the long term effects of head injuries. Even guys that never had concussions while they were playing have experienced long-term negative health effects. Rugby may have more hits, but like you said, players in the NFL can lead with their helmets and it quite often leads to concussions.

Hyperion Ecta,  January 22, 2011 at 5:54 PM  


To be honest, I don't know if TWO extra games will have as much effect as you think. You seem to be afraid that teams will rest starters more often, and that may be true, but I think that event will only occur if a team has already won their division, similar to now. But with those two extra games, it means a team will have to win more games to clinch it (or have a horrendous division to play against) which makes me think that teams won't have the chance to rest too many players anyway.

Anonymous,  January 23, 2011 at 11:25 AM  

Ty -
I'm with Hyperion on this one. You've got a valid point about injuries, but I'm not sure there really will be that many more.

The biggest difference that I see is that instead of two games where both teams are playing all scrubs, we will see two games with mostly starters, with a few scrubs filling in due to injuries, rest, or "to send a message" to underperforming starters. In other words, two games just like almost all of the games currently played.

Changing two games from "exhibition" to "regular season" won't change the number of injuries, it just changes the who might get hurt - the scrubs or the starters. If teams do rest their starters, then these same scrubs will be taking their place.

I'm not even convinced that the roster size will be increased. Teams already have to sit 8 guys out of their 53 man roster for each game, and most of the time these are guys with minor injuries that need a week or two to heal.

I could see adding a couple more to the roster to allow for Stafford-type decisions, where you want to keep a guy on the roster even though he could be out for 8-12 weeks. Other than that, though, guys on IR don't count against the roster, and teams always sign replacements, so the size of the active roster really doesn't represent the total number of players on a team. So the total number of players that play for any given team over the course of a season may be higher, but the number on the roster at any given time needn't be larger.


Matt,  January 23, 2011 at 11:46 AM  

You know I respect your opinion on all things football, but you're off-base on this one. First of all, the motivation. Yes, it is about money (what isn't?), but it's not a "cash grab." It's not like the owners are just going to pocket the difference in revenue between two pre-season games and two regular season games. It'll get chopped up like everything else in the new CBA. Taking an anti-owner, "cash grab," stance from the get-go is pretty biased.

The rest of this piece is almost entirely hypothetical. First of all, you're skirting the fact that the total number of games increases zero. How do total injuries increase significantly when TEAMS aren't really playing any more games (specific players might, but the total amount of time-spent-playing-per-player is the same)? It's okay for guys 54-72 to risk their health in two meaningless games, but it's not okay for the millionaires (who will be about 12.5% richer) to risk it in two more meaningful games? In addition, for the "more injuries" theory to work we'd need to see a rash of injuries in the first two weeks of the Play-Offs every year (as those would be our two "extra" regular season games). Just doesn't happen. The injuries are spread out fairly evenly because the chance of injury is pretty much the same any given week ('cause it's a violent game). Ryan Grant went down Week 1; Aaron Rodgers did once early in the season then again later; Austin Collie was concussed multiple times, but none were close to the "extra game period;" Suh played a whole season but will need surgery. I'm not saying play 30 games or anything, but I don't really see going from 16 to 18 games that count (remember, it's still 20 total games either way) increasing injuries significantly. Tom Brady will play two more full games, but probably only between a half and a whole game between the 2 pre-season games. Right now, he probably plays about 2.5 games between the 4 pre-season games. So, are we really talking about any of these players being on the field much more than they currently are? I don't think so. That kinda' throws the "more injuries" theory out the window. The only way you could persuade me would be hard data from the switch from 14 to 16 games (still 20 overall). If injuries jumped significantly during that period, then maybe you're on to something. Otherwise, I think the griping about 18 games from an injury perspective is mostly smoke & mirrors (remember, this off-season is a "cash grab" for the players, too).

As for non-clinching teams resting starters, increased rosters, and not getting the "best product": First, is there any evidence to back up the idea that healthy scratches will happen or is it just speculation based on comparing the NFL to other leagues it poorly compares to? Same goes for increasing roster sizes as I haven't heard anything about this actually happening. Even if it does, is that inherently a bad thing? Don't we get a better product if Keith Fitzhugh is on the Jets' roster the whole season and is ready when needed instead of off driving a train? In addition, it hasn't been "best 11 vs. best 11" or even 22 for a long time. Part of being the "best" team is surviving the regular season in good enough shape to make a push in the play-offs (this is the case in virtually every team sport). In today's NFL, the best teams use almost their entire roster. Knowing how to effectively use your specialized weapons and covering for the inevitable injuries are the keys to winning, not just having the "best" players. Giving Bill Belichik a few more options can't hurt the product, can it? In short, healthy scratches only happen now when teams have clinched and nothing suggests that will change; increasing rosters is speculative and probably a net gain anyway; product remains very high quality.

Matt, pt. 2,  January 23, 2011 at 11:47 AM  

I think the whole "tipping point" argument is pretty weak, too. How does making two more games count (again, still same total number) completely change the play-offs? Isn't the "best" team the one that is both talented AND can stay hot/healthy down the stretch (I always remember it that way)? If the "best" team through the first half always won the championship, or if you just always want the "best" team to win it, why have play-offs? I'm also not sure which you're saying is more prone to the "hot team 'problem'" already, the NFL or other major sports. In the other sports, you have to win a series of games, but the NFL is win-or-go-home. Doesn't it seem like the latter lends itself to the "problem" already? How does changing two games to regular season games make the NFL more like the other sports and also more about the "hot team" in the play-offs? I'm just not following the logic there.

And, sure, Goodell is not telling the whole truth by saying he's "just listening to what the fans want?" But it is part of the truth and you're ignoring it. Let me go on record: I AM AN NFL FOOTBALL FAN AND I SUPPORT AN 18-GAME REGULAR SEASON. There, that's at least one. Now, I know it's the end of the season and our memories are short, but doeesn't anyone remember how much virtually every fan pisses and moans about pre-season games during THAT part of the season? Season ticket holders especially have been complaining for DECADES about having to buy full priced tickets to "scrubby" pre-season games. Did fans picket for the exact plan Goodell is proposing? No, but that doesn't mean it came completely out of left field or is all about money or something.

Frankly, I think the argument against an 18-game schedule is pretty week. "Cash grab" isn't being fair. "More injuries" is dubious, at best. "Healthy scratches" is pure speculation. "Watered down product/play-offs" is a big logical leap. "Fans didn't ask for it" isn't really true. And, as Anonymous pointed out, if any of these arguments were valid, shouldn't we be talking about contraction to reduce injuries, improve product quality, and stick it to those greedy owners?

Sorry, but, in my opinion, it seems like the anti-18-game folks really just don't want anyone to mess with "their" NFL and are inventing arguments to maintain the status quo. You say the net result will be neutral-at-best (aside from the increased revenue for owners and players and two better games for us fans, of course), but wouldn't you also say it will be neutral-at-worst? I mean, unless every worst case scenario you've described comes to pass, this is clearly a gain, right? And do you really think that, because of two games counting instead of not, there are going to be SOOOO many injuries and SOOOO many benchings and SOOOO many MORE crappy games than there already are and the play-offs will be SOOOO unbalanced that it'll ruin the NFL? I doubt it. If you think the "ceiling" is neutral, you gotta' admit the "floor" is pretty neutral, too. At this point, you have to fall back to the inarguable facts: 1 - there will be two more games that count and two fewer that don't; 2 - owners, players, etc. get more money. Sounds like a win-win, to me.

Finally, it's going to happen. Might as well get on board and save your time/energy coming up with ways it might possibly somehow not be quite as super-awesome as Goodell makes it out to be.

John Simons,  October 14, 2011 at 9:55 AM  

Strong possibility of the NFL being diluted in quality, by extending the regular season to 18 games. My solution generates additional league revenue and increased competition, without sacrificing the quality and integrity of the NFL.

Possible Solution for NFL 18 game Schedule

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