Longer season would present problems
Expanding NFL's slate to 17 or 18 games is not an easy proposition
The annual release of the NFL schedule has become almost a national holiday. The day features two-hour network specials, plenty of fodder for discussion on talk radio, and a paradise for blogs and chats. That's how big the NFL has become.
As commissioner Roger Goodell reminded everyone at the recent owners meeting in Dana Point, Calif., the NFL is seriously investigating the idea of expanding that schedule to include maybe 17 or 18 regular-season games. Powerful owners such as the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones and the New England Patriots' Robert Kraft prefer going to 18 games. In their eyes, the 18-game schedule is cleaner with nine home games and nine road games. Naturally, 18 regular-season games produce more revenue.
Proponents of the 18-game schedule are moving ahead and feel confident the proposal will pass. I agree that the idea of 18 games sounds better than 17, and clearly the 16-game format that follows four meaningless preseason games is a dinosaur. But, for those who think 18 games will become a slam-dunk reality, let's use the words of ESPN's Lee Corso: "Not so fast, my friend."
If the process isn't thought out correctly, there will be problems. Issues involve the calendar, roster sizes and the competitive impact of how those games are scheduled. If done poorly, the 18-game schedule could be more of a drain than a success.
The problem is that the NFL is currently on a 21-week schedule that starts with four preseason games and has 17 regular-season weeks that include 16 games and a bye. A growing group of general managers and owners would almost prefer to go to 17-game regular-season schedule first and later adopt an 18-game slate.
But Jones, Kraft and others believe a schedule of 18 regular-season games is inevitable, so why delay the inevitable?
Well, the earliest any expanded regular-season plan could become reality would be 2011. The current collective bargaining agreement runs through 2010. The players' union and league management would have to agree on any adjustment. Altering the length of the regular season is likely to be a major bone of contention whenever talks about a new CBA resume.
But more than anything else, the calendar poses the biggest problem for the concept of 18 regular-season games. The NFL prefers to start its season after Labor Day. For example, this year the NFL's first regular-season Sunday is Sept. 13. Most schools are in session after Labor Day, Sept. 7. Families are back from vacation. For the league, the post-Labor Day start just has the right feel to it.
How might an expanded season -- with 17 or 18 regular-season games and a shortened preseason -- look?
Let's look at the current calendar year as an example. Early research indicates that under an expanded season plan, the NFL will schedule a league-wide bye week after the shortened preseason and before the start of the regular season. In 2009, the regular season starts Thursday, Sept. 10, with the Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers.
So the bye weekend would be Sept. 5-6, just before Labor Day. The last weekend of the two-game preseason would be Aug. 29-30. Camps would open around the first of August.
To me, that's a little late. From a fan's standpoint, I don't see a problem with starting the regular season before Labor Day. When August comes around, fans like games, even if they are preseason ones. But there's a big problem from a business standpoint with starting before the holiday: Network ratings sweeps don't begin until after Labor Day.
If the league has one or even two weeks of regular-season games while TV households still are enjoying summer vacations, the smaller audiences could affect the ability of the networks to sell advertising. The networks need all the ad revenue they can get to justify the increased rights fees they would pay for additional regular-season games.
So let's say the NFL sticks to starting the regular season after Labor Day. There is a major problem in when the season ends. Again, using this season as the model: The 2009 regular season ends on Jan. 3, 2010 with the first round of the playoffs beginning Jan. 9 and the Super Bowl scheduled for Feb. 7. Under the 18-game schedule on a post-Labor Day start, the regular season would end on Jan. 17 and the Super Bowl would be played on Feb. 21.
Wow, that does seem late. Without question, the NFL would have to give up permanently the idea of playing the Pro Bowl after the Super Bowl. Imagine the mental exhaustion of watching a Feb. 28 Pro Bowl -- after the NHL and NBA have held their All-Star Games. If the NFL doesn't warm to the idea of moving the regular-season start before Labor Day, there will be years like this when the season feels too long.
The other problem is the timing of the championship games. Under the 2009 calendar, the title games in an 18-game season would be played Feb. 7, 2010 instead of Jan. 24. Now January is no picnic in places like Green Bay, Wis.;Orchard Park, N.Y. (where the Bills play); and Chicago. Imagine playing games there two weeks deeper into winter.
Here's one related issue that must immediately be dismissed: Playing the championship game on a neutral site.
No way. One of the best scenes in sports is watching the home team celebrate holding up the championship trophy before its fans amid joyous thoughts of going to the Super Bowl. No matter if the season expands to 17 or 18 games, the NFL is still going to have the bye week between the championship game and the Super Bowl because of the buildup going into the league title contest.
Don't take away the home-field advantage for teams that earn the right to be at home for the championship games, and definitely, don't take that experience away from the fans.
Having just broken down the current 16-game schedule, I can tell you a competitive problem is brewing with how the NFL wants to handle the 18-game schedule. The proponents of 18 games want good games, so they would favor simply expanding the idea of having first-place teams play first-place teams, second-place teams play second-place teams, etc. For a 17-game format, that would mean a first-place team would play the same 12-game schedule as the other three teams in its division and then play the other three first-place teams in the conference.
The NFL's competition committee already has looked at the 18-game idea and the thought coming back is for the first-place team to play not only the three other division winners in its conference, but to have one game against a first-place team in the other conference.
That's a problem. Imagine the burden of a first-place team playing four other first-place teams instead of three. While that's good for parity, it creates some major problems. In many ways, it will create even more up-and-down swings of teams.
Take the Miami Dolphins, for example. They play a .594 schedule in 2009 after going from 1-15 in 2007 to 11-5 last season, an amazing worst-to-first run. Normally, there is a three-game drop-off from a worst-to-first season because that team plays two first-place teams the next season. That's 13 games against teams with .500 records or better.
Under that 18-game schedule, the Dolphins would play 15 games against teams .500 or better. Ouch.
Fortunately, the league has plenty of time to figure out the right things to do, and it helps that the issue is subject to collective bargaining to accommodate player safety. Eighteen games sounds easier than 17, but there are some serious issues to consider.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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