by Dave Bernreuther
NFL owners dusted off an old talking point in advance of the next CBA negotiations, meaning we should all prepare for two more years of discussion about the possibility of an 18-game season.
This latest proposal, which is not new, but is seeing official backing for the first time, is to stage an 18-game season with a limit of 16 total games for any player.
There are a number of ways to look at this hare-brained, but still well-reasoned, idea. The first is that it's just the owners overreaching so that they can negotiate something away in the talks without giving up something they really want. The second is that they actually think it's a good idea. And in ways that completely dismiss the opinions of fans, it may actually be; Given that revenues and thus the salary pool would go up substantially without increasing players' workloads, this could be the approach that is most likely to win approval from the NFLPA.
Of course, this completely dismisses the opinions of paying fans, many of whom may revolt if a star player comes from a non-conference opponent (who visits only once every eight years) ends up on one of his two required down weeks, and most of whom just flat out didn't ask for and don't want any more regular season games. If we assume that this schedule expansion will bring with it more neutral-site games, likely in other countries, domestic fans don't benefit from this at all.
The opinions of ordinary fans won't matter, though, if billions of dollars can be made. A two-game expansion could effectively add THREE weeks to the regular season, if another bye week is re-introduced (the NFL tried this for one season in 1993). A 20-game TV package would certainly add a lot more money to the salary pool.
Still, it's a terrible idea. Forcing players to take weeks off will create far more problems than it solves and open many cans of worms related to logistics and practice rules. (It would also create plenty of new areas for smarter teams like the Patriots to gain an edge with their roster construction, and could also possibly inflate salaries for entire classes of end-of-roster players.) It solves a problem that didn't exist, while ignoring actual issues that do.
As a somewhat stubborn fan of the existing scheduling formula - which is more predictable and equitable than that in any other major sport - my preferred compromise is simple: Keep the schedule as it is, but bring back the second bye week. Pair that week with Thursday Night Football, so that games with only three days' rest are eliminated in favor of a 10-day break followed by a 9-day break. The TNF package would instantly become more valuable due to the enhanced quality of play, while the season would expand by another week to 18, and everything would still make sense.
That solution wouldn't allow for more expansion into new markets, so the idea of adding neutral-site games would persist. If there was an equitable way to set those extra opponents up in the scheduling formula, that's an acceptable compromise as well, even though 17 would be a really weird number of games. One possible solution to that would be to scrap both finish order-based conference games (for example, the 2019 Jets' games against the Jaguars and Raiders) and instead add a second division from the other conference, with a requirement that the neutral site games be against non-conference foes. This idea would still lead to an 18-game schedule, and may ultimately be the best answer for that. But the 16-game limit would likely result in a lot of star players skipping those trips, which brings us right back to why this current proposal is flawed.
Wherever this negotiation leads, it would presumably come with a reduction in pre-season games from four to two as well, which ostensibly reduce the amount extorted from season ticket holders, making those fans happier. I personally also think is a terrible idea, given their value for talent evaluators, but I also think that's an easy problem to solve, and could go on for days about that. But that's another issue. FO Readers: What do you think would make for an optimal NFL season?