Play an 18-game NFL season!
Some people see stadium beer cups as half empty. Others see them as half full.
Me? I take one look at all that empty space and wonder when the local sports franchise is going to dub it an "enhanced pour," then charge $12.95 a pop.
In other words, I'm a certified sports cynic. Distrusting to a fault. Forever bracing for the tunnel at the end of the light. I don't assume new ideas are bad until proved worse, forever fueled by greed, vanity and sheer incompetence. (Please note: this is not a column about "The Decision.") Uh-uh. I know things are rotten to the core and can generally rattle off a half-dozen supporting arguments without even trying. Which is why I find the NFL's possible switch to an 18-game "enhanced season" so disturbing.
Frankly, I can't spot the downside.
And I've tried.
I mean, really, really tried.
Like, I've even thought about what it would mean for the guys who program "Madden NFL." (Short answer? They'd be fine. The video game already comes out early. Its makers are used to tight deadlines.)
In a nutshell, here's the league's big scheduling idea: increase the regular season from 16 to 18 games. Decrease the preseason from four games to two. Tinker with roster sizes and injured reserve rules accordingly. Shazam! Just like that, more football.
Read that last part again.
Adrianpetersonbrettfavrepeytonmanningsaintscowboysbrettfavre. Are you not entertained?
Everyone wins. Fans get additional opportunities to swap Sunday errands for couch-bound sloth and weekday office work for fantasy football trade proposals. The NFL gets to ask television networks for
more even more money. Sportswriters get extra stuff to, well, sportswrite about.
Of course, not everyone agrees. I want to side with them. But I can't.
Start with pro players. Following an expanded schedule presentation during a recent collective bargaining session, a spokesman for the NFL Players Association fretted over potentially increased injury risk. Along the same lines, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis worried that adding two "end-of-season games -- where players already play hurt -- comes at a huge cost for player and team."
Lewis is right: anything that ups the odds of getting hurt is legitimate cause for concern. And the legitimate solution for said concern is ... to not play football in the first place. After all, the game is violent by design, destructively so. People hit other people. Hard. Even in the weight room, they pump and push their bodies beyond any reasonable limit. Anyone can suffer a serious injury at any time -- in offseason workouts (Willie Colon), in training camp (Reggie Kelly), in preseason (Michael Vick), in the first game of the regular season (Tom Brady), even playing flag football (Steve Smith).
Indeed, the 16-game regular season already is a matter of attrition and survival: a league-wide study pegged the average per game, per team injury rate at 2.7 players. Two additional games wouldn't increase that number; it only would transfer some of the existing injury risk from preseason backups and warm bodies to starters and top subs. That's a small price to pay for more games, given that the union figures to negotiate a congruent salary bump, and that its public position on the matter smells an awful lot like CBA posturing.
Oh, and speaking of extra money, the average NFL playing career spans a whopping four years. How do athletes maximize that minuscule window? By increasing the number of paydays within. Cut in favor of a cheaper rookie? Dumped to clear salary cap space? Pro football life is harsh -- but a little less so with two additional game checks in the bank.
Others worry about the sanctity of the NFL record book. Lengthen the season, they argue, and pretty soon records such as Dan Marino's 5,084 single-season passing yards will fall by the wayside. True enough. But really, who cares? League records have scant sanctity to begin with, largely because the NFL previously expanded from 12 to 14 games, then from 14 to 16. Does anyone believe that Jim Brown's single-season rushing high of 1,863 yards -- set in the 14-game 1963 season -- is less impressive than Ahman Green's 1,883 yards in 2003? Does anyone think Brown wasn't as good as LaDainian Tomlinson, who has three seasons with more than 1,600 rushing yards to Brown's one?
Please. Brown is the best player in league history, or at least the best player not named Jerry Rice. Also, he starred in "The Dirty Dozen," which is slightly more impressive than O.J. Simpson's cinematic oeuvre.
When it comes to numbers, pro football isn't baseball. It isn't even basketball. No other team sport -- no other sport, period, save pre-and-post wooden racket tennis -- is unfriendlier to era-crossing statistical comparisons. Rules changes have too much impact on the game. Drew Brees throwing for a record 5,200 yards in an 18-game season wouldn't invalidate Marino anymore than Marino's mark invalidates Bert Jones throwing for 3,104 yards in 1976, two years before the league decreed that defensive backs could no longer pummel wide receivers all over the field.
Besides, losing a few not-so-hallowed statistical milestones would be well worth an 18-game season's primary non-financial gain: two fewer meaningless, excruciatingly mediocre preseason contests. Oh, and less training camp, too. Not to put too fine a point on it, but when Aristotle discussed the good life, the only reason he failed to mention an absence of Bengals-Bills in mid-August was that pro football had yet to be invented. Which means the father of Western thought didn't have to buy a ticket package containing four preseason clunkers marked up at regular-season prices.
Stated another way: Brett Favre may be slightly narcissistic, and he may take strange, excessive pleasure in reporters camping on his front lawn, but by dithering and deliberating and annually missing as much ersatz summer football as possible, he's being ... pretty darn clever. Training camps open this week; while everyone else in the league suffers through sweltering summer sun, too-small dorm room beds, the tedium of repetitive drills and the cerebral cortex-erasing boredom of repetitive camp media dispatches (um, sorry, fellow sportswriters), Favre will be chilling at home, playing pitch-and-catch with awestruck high school kids and granting an occasional audience to awestruck Minnesota coach Brad Childress.
Really, if you were Favre, what would you do? Go slap a Mankato, Minn., tackling sled?
Perhaps the most compelling argument against an 18-game NFL season goes as follows. The league is enormously successful as is. Don't fix what isn't broken. Additional games will dilute the product. Oversaturate a crowded sports market. Each contest will become less intense, less do-or-die apocalyptic, less special. In short, you can have too much of a good thing.
I say balderdash.
Two extra games doesn't equal the 82-game NBA season, or 162 baseball games, or however many years each interminably scattershot MLS season lasts. It's not adding road spikes, hurricane-level headwinds and a Sarlacc Pit to the Pyrenees portion of the Tour de France. It's simply two more weeks on the calendar, tacked on in February, when it's already cold and miserable and there's nothing to watch but dreg, too-weak-for-summer Hollywood rom-coms shoved out the door to capitalize on Valentine's Day. Heck, pushing the NFL playoffs into mid-month could lower the national rates of: a) seasonal-affective disorder; b) attempted self-harm due to seasonal-affective disorder; c) death by slipping on ice while shoveling snow.
Look, anything that shortens the time between the end of the Super Bowl and the start of the NCAA Tournament -- and doesn't involve illegally cooking down cold medicine and/or Drano -- is a clear and obvious social good.
More to the point, an expanded NFL season hardly would oversupply the market for pro football; if anything, it simply would be bowing to insatiable demand, akin to Apple shipping additional iPhones. Our pigskin obsession is now year 'round -- from preseason to regular season to postseason to draft season to player arrest season -- growing with exposure like weeds to rain. Even the implicit threat of more bad football -- remember: an 18-game schedule means two additional Oakland and Detroit games -- is insufficient reason to kibosh an extended NFL campaign. Not when we have fantasy, sports talk radio catharsis and the Manhattan Project-brilliant NFL Red Zone channel to soothe the pain.
In the final analysis, who loses under the enhanced season proposal? Probably the producers of "Hard Knocks." And ... that's pretty much the list. Which, as I've said, leaves a sports cynic like me nervous. Perplexed. Disturbed. There's a poker saying that goes if you can't spot the sucker at the table, it's you. Eighteen games are on the table. I can't spot the sucker. Maybe it's me. Maybe it's all of us. So what?
All I know is that I'll be too busy watching more football -- and gladly forking over whatever unholy sum they decide to charge for a half-empty cup of beer -- to care.
Patrick Hruby is a freelance writer and ESPN.com contributor. Contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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