Keep the Sweet 16!

The NFL 3 days ago presented the NFL Players Association with a formal proposal to expand the season from 16 to 18 games. The battle has been drawn. This a heated subject that, if not resolved amicably, will directly influence the signing of a new collective bargaining agreement by the NFLPA.

There are some very good reasons to “enhance” the schedule, especially for owners and fans. More games for the fans means more money for the owners. It also means more work for stadium employees. And a longer season would extend football into February, widely considered the worst month for sports.

However, there are serious risks in creating more games, enough so that maintaining the current 16-game schedule is the better course of actions.

More Injuries

More than any other sport, football requires that every player on the field work as a team. And with fewer reserves to draw upon (basketball, baseball and hockey all have minor leagues; football has practice squads), any injury can be devastating to a team. An injury to a quarterback is usually season-ending, but even someone as minor as an offensive line injury can derail a team. And football causes so much wear-and-tear that adding two games significantly increases the likelihood of someone going down right before the playoffs, the time when a team can least afford an injury.

The short season compounds all of this. If a baseball player misses a couple of games, it barely matters. If a football player misses two games, that’s 12.5 percent of the season. And when the player does recover, he has to go back to the pros immediately. There is no rehab plan like in baseball. This means that players take longer to come back from injuries to minimize the risk of re-aggravation, and when they do return they tend to hold back a little while they re-insert themselves into such a high level of football. From a fan perspective, the player just looks like he’s not playing hard. Injuries bring down the overall quality of football played on any given day. Why increase the likelihood of an uncontrollable circumstance killing a team’s playoff chances?

Finally, Boston Globe reporter Albert Breer points out that in order to qualify for post-career health care, a player must play three full seasons and four weeks of a fourth. That means adding six games to one’s career, Breer says. Unless the vesting limit decreases, far fewer players will stay in the league long enough to qualify for health care afterward. That’s unacceptable. The NFL cannot continue to throw out the players who mutilated their bodies for the league’s profits and the fan’s entertainment.

The Risk of Concussion

Concussions are football’s dark secret. Basically, a concussion occurs when a person is hit so hard (usually in the head) that the brain slams into the skull. Physiologically, this causes a buildup of the tau protein. On X-rays, tau looks like a fog, or a dark cloud. Build up enough tau and you start to suffer from some or all of the three d’s: dementia, depression, and drug addiction.

The NFL has taken some measures to protect its players from concussion, but until some fundamental characteristics of football change, the chance will always be there. Some have argued that the three-point stance positions players in such a way as to increase the likelihood of concussion. That may be, but it’s unlikely that will ever change. So other steps must be taken to protect players, and one step is to not add extra games.

Some will ask, why shorten a season to avoid something that happens so rarely? The fact is, concussions are so bad that even a couple are devastating.

Some will say that the players don’t care, that they’re willing to sacrifice their future health for present glory. That may be the case, but those players have no idea what they’re exposing themselves to. Ted Johnson won three Super Bowl rings and played in 12 postseason games. Ask him if he’d give back a few of those games, maybe even a ring or two, if it meant he’d currently have a healthy brain. You might be surprised by his answer.

The league has to protect the players, sometimes even from themselves. If two fewer games saves even one player from one concussion, then it’s worth it.

Changing the Value of Divisional Wins

As it stands, 37.5% of NFL games are divisional games: six out of 16 games. The two added games will not be divisional games, because that would give unfair schedule advantages to certain teams in the division (for example: if the Patriots were to get an extra game against the Bills but the Jets had to play the Dolphins a third time per season). And it’s unlikely that the league would change the number of divisional games to nine, because then certain teams would get more home games against divisional opponents, or twelve, because that would place too much importance on how a team performs against just three others. So that means you’re adding two non-divisional games to the schedule. The ratio drops to 6/18, or 33.3 percent.

What do you do with those two games? Do you make them conference games, non-conference games, or one of each? Considering conference wins plays a role in tie-breaking rules, it might not be a good idea to add two games that a team is unlikely to take as seriously until they find themselves in a tight race for a wildcard spot. But if you make them non-conference games, a team is unlikely to take them serious at all, since the only time they’ll see that opponent again is in the Super Bowl.

The current formula is six divisonal games, four games against a division in the same conference, four games against a division in the other conference, and two against teams from a division in the same conference that finished the previous season at the same position within their division as your team did (this is why the Patriots keep playing the Colts, even though they don’t always play every team in the AFC South). The only way to add the games is to add two games from the final category, although maybe they’ll be similarly ranked teams from the opposite division this time. The problem with that is if a team plays poorly in one year then picks it up the following season, they will get two (or now four) easy games. If the reverse happens, a struggling team will suddenly find itself facing former division winners. Adding two games will cause too much carry over from the previous season.

More Scrub Games

If a team clinches a playoff spot in Week 12 or 13 (common), they will usually take the last few games off, resting their starters for the postseason. Now if a team clinches around that time, they might take off up to a third of the season. Do they have the right? Absolutely. But fans hate mailed-in games. They change the channel, or they leave early. Meaningless games mean less money for owners. With extra games you run the risk that teams will spend more of the season resting starters.

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Four compelling reasons explain why the season should stay at 16 games. The risk of injury increases dramatically, which can derail a team’s postseason chances or performance. The expansion will also diminish the number of players who stay in the league long enough to qualify for health care when they’re done. The dangers of concussions are so enormous that players need to be protected in any way possible. The extra games will most likely be non-conference, similarly-ranked opponents, which means teams will essentially start auditioning for next year while playing the current year. And teams that clinch early will have more opportunities to rest players, which is boring for fans and costly for owners.

The answer is clear: keep the schedule as it is. February may remain a slow sports month, but expanding football into it may do more harm than good. The appeal of showing the Super Bowl on Presidents Day Sunday is specious. While the day-off the next day may allow some to stay up late to watch everything, more may use the three-day weekend to go elsewhere. It might result in actually fewer viewers than its current date. To increase Super Bowl viewership (not that you need to), it might be far smarter to lobby for the Monday after to be a national holiday.

“Enhancing” the season will result in long-term negative health consequences for players. Word to the NFL and NFLPA: don’t do it.

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