The NFL wants your eyeballs and your money. In the pursuit of the former, it walks a delicate tight rope between gesturing toward player safety and revving up offense in the process, something that’s happened to a point that purists hate and player safety advocates still don’t think is enough.
In the pursuit of the latter, the NFL’s solution is less nuanced and less variable. It just gives you more NFL, in one form or another.
The league’s latest salvo on that front—a reported 18 game season, the rumor that hasn’t died and may never die—is the ultimate example of the league’s inability to leave things alone. The NFL has seen remarkable growth for so long that it forgets that sustained growth is not a right, nor is it ever eternal. The 18 game season might be the wakeup call they need, or it might be the latest shrewd way to get the league’s hands in our wallets, and the wallets of their advertisers.
Why 18 games?
The NFL has long understood that the appetite for more NFL is real. It’s why the draft has become a multi-day spectacle, the start of free agency and legal tampering are suddenly events, and fantasy football has become interwoven into the larger league landscape. That’s why they’ve persistently, quietly been trying to figure out a way to add more games for a long time.
Those games would almost certainly come at the expense of preseason, one of the few items on the league calendar that just about everyone isn’t fond of. Preseason games aren’t awful, per se, but they’re more of an idea you look forward to than actual good games. Once you roll around to the last one, filled with guys hanging on the roster and largely playing awful football, the average fan is over it.
But what if you stripped two of those games out and replaced them with more NFL games? The NFLPA would never go for that wholesale—asking NFL players to play two more full games is a recipe for injury no one aside from owners would be eager to embrace—but the new proposal tries to thread the needle.
Essentially, the proposal is that while there would be 18 games (and again, two fewer preseason games), no player would be able to make more than 16 starts. That would leave NFL head coaches, who are not always known for their strategic acumen, trying to figure out when to sit their starting quarterbacks and key players, choosing between absorbing two losses by playing all their backups more or less en masse and forcing us to watch preseason-quality football, or by carefully juggling them and risking losing games when, say, Deion Jones isn’t in the game and a pass he would get a hand on sails over hte head of his backup.
Are there any reasons to like the proposal?
The head honcho at sister site Field Gulls makes a compelling case for the strategy piece, which would turn NFL coaching staffs into fantasy footballers facing bye weeks to some extent.
I think it could make for fascinating strategic decisions. Like do you sit your QB in September? What happens in week 18 when you need a win but your QB is at 16 games but your opponent, out of the playoff race, is full strength? Idk. I like weird!— kenneth arthur (@KennethArthuRS) July 12, 2019
This is easily the most compelling subplot to this entire idea, and the thing I’d actually look forward to seeing if the NFL plows ahead with this, despite the caveats I just got through talking about above. Watching coaches wrestle with the prospect of absolutely disrespecting opponents with their backups or sweating over games like fantasy owners sweat over bye weeks would be entertaining as hell, even if it’s likely to be frustrating when it’s our team. As a fan, getting two more games that aren’t preseason games (with the potential elimination of two games) is a pretty fun idea, and backups would get at least a little bit more exposure out of this idea. If rosters are expanded to help this along, that would give more players a shot at an NFL paycheck, which I always support.
Why shouldn’t we like it?
Besides the fact that it’s completely unnecessary—the 16 game season has served the NFL well since the 1980s, ratings have been robust, and advertisers are still shelling out obscene money to this league—it has the potential to impact the quality of the league overall. Asking coaches to make decisions they’ve never made before will lead to some comically bad outcomes in the short-term until they adjust, and the very real possibility that teams will simply elect to punt two games with their backups, creating mid-season preseason games that will make Thursday Night Football look wonderful in comparison.
If the league can get the NFLPA on board—I’m still dubious—this thing might have a chance to get off the ground. If it’s well thought-out, if rosters expand, if coaches are given the training and support they need to navigate the changes, and if there’s something in the proposal to prevent teams from dumping two bad games per year on us, this thing may actually have legs. Given the NFL’s history when it comes to putting more NFL in front of us, and their habit of never thinking things through as thoroughly as they should, count me as a skeptic for now.