On March 12, 2011, a work stoppage was appointed to the players of the National Football League. The owners of the NFL and the NFL Players Association bartered and battled for four and a half months until the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was completely signed by both sides on July 25. Among the many topics that were brought up that summer, the NFL proposed the possibility of an 18-game schedule. The league’s current arrangement of games was never impacted and the idea was long forgotten. However, history does have a way of repeating itself. With the current CBA set to expire after the 2020 season and both sides already striking up negotiations in preparation, the concept of the NFL taking on an 18-game has started sparking conversation around the league.
The last time the NFL broadened its regular season calendar was when it added two games to the original 14-game slate. Four decades have passed since then so it would require a massive effort on the NFL’s side to persuade the NFLPA to join hands on this matter. The biggest question, as was with the 2011 negotiation period, is player safety. Increasing the number of full speed contests would undoubtedly inflate the number of injuries. This almost seems like a hypocritical move of the NFL considering they just dished out over $765 million in lawsuit settlements to 4,500 former players in 2013. The upside to the NFL is simple: more money. More regular season games would bring in higher revenue, as opposed to the less attractive preseason matches.
The NFL schedule currently consists of 20 guaranteed contests, with four being preseason and 16 being regular season. The overall number of 20 games would theoretically stay the same, but two preseason games would be added to the regular season slate. The preseason is not a popular time for casual fans. They want to see their star players duke it out with stakes on the line. To most viewers, the preseason is played off as a tease for the real fun. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sees this as an opportunity to give the fans the high-quality entertainment that they yearn for. Goodell was recently at a charity golf tournament in Buffalo, New York, where he said, “I feel what we should be doing is always to the highest quality, and I’m not sure preseason games meet that level right now.”
What Goodell does not see is that this is a crucial time of talent evaluation for the teams’ staffs, especially for younger players or those on the roster bubble. The preseason starts with 90 players on the roster, not counting those who come and go due to signing and releases. Shortening down to only 120 minutes of exhibition for these players would not be an adequate time period to gauge the best roster fits. Training camps are essential for this, but players have to be able to showcase their abilities against new competition as opposed to the same people they line up across every day. Plus, training camp can be a lot of applying the playbook and strategies to repetitions. Games will show how comfortable they really are. Only giving the players two “warm-up” games will lead to sloppy football for the first month.
Another downside would be the impact of team rosters. The risk for injury rises significantly with two more full weeks, which means the league maximum for roster spots would have to rise from its present 53. Perhaps that number gets increased to 60 or 63, but then that also means more spots on Injured Reserve and the Physically Unable to Perform list. The league could look into an extra bye week for each time and split the season into thirds of sorts, which would add yet another seven days to the agenda. Understandably, the players would expect their contracts to reflect this extra danger and time that their bodies are exposed to. The NFLPA would be looking for richer contracts and more fully guaranteed money, which could raise the ceiling of the salary cap upwards by tens of millions of dollars.
All in all, a lot of teams limp and struggle to the finish line as it is. The players would want to be properly compensated for this added risk and negotiations could spiral out of control. The NFLPA has been very resilient against this idea and I fully expect them to hold their ground moving forward. As much as I would love to see more impactful football, the intensity and liability of the sport and its dangers would shift the NFL into a rough patch. Anything can happen in the next two years and bargaining has already begun.