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.