“We do think it is the right thing for the game.”—NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, in 2011, on lengthening the league’s regular season
“I won’t let it happen.”—new NFL Players Association president Eric Winston, in 2014, on the same idea
Winston, as the newly elected leader of the NFL players’ union, selected an important issue to make his first big promise on; he came down on the right side of it. Goodell, who works for the league’s team owners, has long pushed for expanding the regular season from 16 games to 18. The idea behind the 18-game proposal is that, since the NFL is such a popular sport already, two extra games would boost revenues while giving fans more chances to enjoy the sport. But doing so would harm the league the commissioner aims to promote: His owners would field a weaker game-day product as more of the league’s best players—its starters—fall to injury.
The Damage to Starters
NaVorro Bowman, an elite inside linebacker for the 49ers, serves as a case study on how much punishment NFL starters already endure. During the 2013 regular season, Bowman recorded 145 tackles, or about nine per game. Each tackle was an opportunity for Bowman to get injured; after all, he was trying to drag, throw, or wallop another skilled, powerful athlete to the ground.
Adding another 18 tackles per season—nine tackles per extra game—might not sound like much, but NFL linebackers, even with limited acceleration room, can hit with 1,000 pounds of force, per the sports-research show Sport Science. Enduring that kind of collision—applying massive force with his own body—18 additional times per season couldn’t possibly be good for Bowman.
Plus, Bowman’s 2013 tackle stats don’t cover all the phantom collisions Bowman faced, such as when he rammed into blockers or tussled in fumble scrums. Much of the risk NFL players face is unquantifiable: Bowman’s 2013 season ended in the playoffs when an opposing player got knocked into his leg, shredding Bowman’s knee while Bowman—who had been securing a fumbled ball—was essentially standing still. Bowman will reportedly miss half of the 2014 season, showing how disruptive late-season injuries can be to a player’s career.
Offensive players suffer random injuries as well: In the final week of the 2009 season, then-Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker tore two knee ligaments when he planted his leg awkwardly; he made a defender miss but destroyed his own knee anyway. It’s really easy for these guys to get hurt, especially starters who spend lots of time exposed to danger. An extra two games per season would make it even easier.
Slippery Schedule Solutions
Each proposal designed to lessen such injury risks has flaws. One idea, floated by quarterback Tom Brady’s agent, is that every player on a roster could be limited to playing in 16 games per season, the two games they miss ostensibly giving them time to heal. However, one of the NFL’s biggest appeals is that it features the best players in the world competing against each other; this proposal would dim that gleam. Most notably, the drop in talent from most NFL teams’ starting quarterback to his backup is precipitous; the two games a year when a team automatically had to play the backup would become less attractive to TV audiences. For example, in 2013, the Packers’ TV ratings declined by eight percent, coinciding with an injury to starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who missed much of the season. The Packers weren’t a bad team; in fact, they won one of the league’s closest races to the postseason. Given that the Packers remained competitive without Rodgers, it stands to reason that they became less attractive to viewers largely because they were missing their best player. Mandatory benchings—combined with inevitable injuries resulting from the two extra games—would spread effects like this across the entire league.
Instead of mandatory benchings, another option in the 18-game discussion is giving teams a second bye week. But the NFL rolled with two bye weeks in 1993, and it didn’t go well, according to sportswriter Bill Simmons: “CBS and NBC freaked out because their ratings plummeted thanks to a continually depleted Sunday slate; teams complained that they couldn’t maintain momentum when they weren’t playing enough games in a row; everyone hated losing the week off between the conference title games and the Super Bowl.”
The networks’ thin-schedule complaint could be allayed somewhat by the additional teams the NFL has picked up since then, as well as today’s expanded viewing options, such as NFL Sunday Ticket. The momentum complaint would perhaps remain. And the final complaint speaks to a hidden problem posed by a second bye: It’s likely that either the league’s two conference champions would once more need to lose the week between the semi-final games and the Super Bowl, making them less rested for the league’s ultimate game, or the season would need to push deeper into the year, thereby shortening an already cramped offseason. (The Super Bowl currently occurs in February; teams begin reconvening in April.) Plus, the league already has trouble scheduling byes in a fair manner: Teams coming off byes often face teams coming off much shorter breaks. Trying to juggle a second bye without disadvantaging even more teams seems like a difficult task.
And while byes do give players needed rest, rest does not give players armor. Data on players injured following their bye weeks is difficult to find, but a reasonable facsimile for coming off of a bye is Week 1 of the regular season, when players should be at their most rested. In Week 1 of 2013’s regular season, Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey and running back LaRod Stephens-Howling both went down for the year with severe knee injuries, while Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara suffered a concussion, the type of head injury Goodell has sought to eliminate. The rest players get during the offseason and bye weeks is valuable for rejuvenating their bodies, but cannot guard against the sudden, severe injuries that weaken teams and shorten careers; an extra bye week would do little to counteract the risk wrought by playing two extra games.
The Preseason Dissolution
A particularly flawed idea the NFL has reportedly considered is to simply turn two preseason games into regular-season games, thereby keeping the total number of games at 20. But that doesn’t allay injury concerns because starters play extremely sparingly in preseason games; for instance, during the 2013 preseason, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning attempted just 54 passes in four games, for an average of 13.5 passes per game. (That includes zero in the fourth game, which Manning sat out entirely, as starters often do to preserve their health.) During the regular season, Manning averaged 41 passes per game—about three times as many. He therefore faced many more chances for injury in each regular-season game, as well as greater wear on his throwing arm.
Likewise, Bears running back Matt Forte also handled a much lighter load in the 2013 preseason than in the regular season. He, like Manning, sat out the fourth game and handled the ball very few times in the other three: Counting carries and receptions, he touched the ball 18 times total, an average of 4.5 touches per game. But he had 363 touches in 16 regular-season games, or nearly 23 touches per game. That means that Forte faced roughly five times as many opportunities for punishment in each regular-season game as in each preseason game. And on some plays, he had no-stat duties as a blocker, which likely increased the wear on Forte’s body even farther.
Including the fourth, no-play game in these players’ preseason averages is important because it’s endemic to the nature of the preseason. Starters get to take a few tuneup snaps, but largely stay out of action that could end their seasons or shorten their careers. At the same time, backup players play heavy snaps in all four games, which helps them develop skills against NFL competition, and leaves them better prepared when starters inevitably fall. Shortening the preseason in favor of a longer regular season would leave starters more vulnerable to injury and their backups less prepared to fill in for them. And while critics often blast preseason games for being backup-filled, uncompetitive affairs, eliminating two of them in this manner would just transfer that sloppiness into the regular season. Greater numbers of injured starters would give way to more-inexperienced backups, diluting the NFL’s wildly successful product just as mandatory benchings would.
Better Technology, More Bodies, Same Problems
Perhaps an alternative way to soften an 18-game season lies in technology, rather than schedule trickery, writes ESPN’s Kevin Seifert in his examination of player-tracking GPS machinery. The technology measures things like players’ workloads and the collisions they endure, hopefully helping coaches know when to ease up on players who are about to get injured. But such technology is still developing, and NFL players are notorious for playing through injuries. If players are willing to defiantly throw themselves into the chaos of an NFL game with all manner of injuries, how will they react to a computer telling them they should lay off because they might be about to get hurt? Furthermore, as Seifert writes, player-tracking technology would only help guard against injuries borne from fatigue and repetition; those caused by jolting tackles, violent blocks, and random, Welker-style slips would go on undeterred.
Another possibility would be to expand roster sizes to help teams make it through an 18-game season. But this would also be an implicit admission that more players are going to get hurt. And the players who get the new, extra roster spots? They would not have been NFL-level talent before the roster expansion. To keep players healthy through rotation and help teams cope with injuries, roster sizes likely should grow with or without the 18-game season. But previously on-the-street players would necessarily be a step down in talent and watchability; building an 18-game strategy around the idea that such athletes will spend more time on rosters—and the field—to replace superior but injured players again threatens to dilute the NFL’s quality of play.
Given the success of the NFL’s talent- and competition-driven system, it seems an unwise course to stretch the league’s stars over an additional two games while thrusting greater numbers of backups onto the field. The immediate-gratification revenues owners seek to gain through an 18-game season would come with the long-term cost of fielding more damaged, less talented teams. And if Commissioner Goodell is truly concerned about increasing player safety, as he claims to be, he should yield to Winston and steer the league away from the 18-game regular season—lest he hurt the NFL’s players and owners both.