The NFL’s new 17 game season is a cash grab that hurts the game

How many NFL owners love the game of football? I mean, really love the game. Judging from the latest decision to expand the regular season to 17 games, it seems that when the chips are down and the decision is between the sanctity of the game and money, they’re picking the money every single time.

On Monday NFL owners met and voted to increase the regular season by a game starting in 2021, with each team being told its additional matchup. It’s a move the NFL Player’s Association was prepared for, building the provision into the CBA. As a result the preseason will be reduced from four games to three to build the 17th game into the schedule organically.

While the idea of “more football is good” is generally something I believe in, when it comes to expanding the regular season there’s really no need for it — outside of selling out another stadium and putting more money in the pockets of owners.

Divisional games are de-emphasized even further.

The close to the 2020 season was one of the most memorable in recent memory. In the closing weeks there were no fewer than 13 teams on the playoff bubble, all of whom had a legitimate chance to make it with games down the stretch. The league has run under an even game symmetry of six divisional games, and 10 non divisional games since 2002 — and it’s largely ran without a hitch. Sure, there are times a subpar team makes the playoffs because of their weak division, but that will happen under the 17-game schedule anyway.

What expanding the schedule does is make it less important than ever to win the division. In addition, the NFL’s scheduling that puts pressure on prior win/loss records is now even more subject to scheduling influencing results, rather than raw talent. In this initial season the league is essentially matching up the win/loss records of teams from 2020, and having those games play out.

This is great if you’re a bad team, because you’ll face another bad team. If you were in the playoffs in 2020 then your regular season just became more difficult, and could impact the playoff picture as a result of the 17th game being added.

It also pushes divisional matchups to now being worth just 35 percent of the season. This is a small shift from 37 percent a year ago, but takes some of the teeth out of the brutal, largely regional matchups that compel some of the best stories in the sport. Making those matter less simply isn’t good for fans.

We don’t know how the wear and tear will effect players.

On a base level, yes, players are theoretically competing in the same amount of games. But, as we all know, by the time you hit the fourth game of preseason you’re lucky to see starters play a single quarter, if at all.

Now we’re asking players, who have already talked about how grueling the season is (especially with Thursday night to Sunday turnarounds) to play another game at the highest level. Last season was already injury-filled, and this just increases the likelihood players will get hurt and make the playoffs less compelling as a result.

We’re going to have to asterisk stats, and that sucks.

Okay, so not exactly asterisk them — but this is a factor for people who enjoy following the numbers behind the game. This essentially throws off the conventional wisdom we have about what constitutes being a star or an elite player.

The general metric for a “star” has been for a while whether a receiver or running back had a 1,000 yard season. Now hitting 1,000 is easier than ever, forcing us to recalibrate how we think of seasonal stats. In addition, with the NFL being more pass-happy than ever, we’re quickly approaching 5,000 passing yards being the norm, not an exceptional season. If there was a 17th game in 2020 both Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes would have crossed the 5,000 yard mark, which has only happened 12 times in NFL history. A chunk of the history book would be rewritten in a single year.

It’s a small quibble for sure, but it’s also a shame.

If you think we have a problem with teams resting players now …

Resting for the playoffs has become a loathed staple of the NFL, especially with scheduling that makes back-end games more important. Now with an expanded season it’s not outside the realm of possibility that elite teams could rest during two, or even more games if they wrap things up early.

This could completely take close divisional races out of the hands of teams playing to get in, and put the power in the hands of teams deciding whether to rest their starters or not. That isn’t fun for anyone, and only makes the game worse as a result.

What are the added games for 2021?

Like I said, the league has basically just taken the win/loss of teams and spread them across the league to make a kind of parity. For this season the AFC will be the home game in every matchup, with the NFC getting the additional home game in 2022 — alternating from there on.

2021 17th Game Schedule

Home Away
Home Away
Bengals 49ers
Bills Washington
Broncos Lions
Browns Cardinals
Chargers Vikings
Chiefs Packers
Colts Buccaneers
Dolphins Giants
Jaguars Falcons
Jets Eagles
Patriots Cowboys
Raiders Bears
Ravens Rams
Steelers Seahawks
Texans Panthers
Titans Saints

We can love football, and not like this.

The worst part of the 17th game is that it is so blatant nobody wanted this but owners. There’s been steady, consistent pushback to the idea from players and fans alike, neither of whom see the need to add to the NFL schedule.

As unscientific as this poll may be, it shows at a base level that an overwhelming majority of fans dislike the idea. Whether that’s because of the silly lack of symmetry a 17-game season has, concerns of the competitive balance, or player health.

The only winners in this situation are NFL owners, who now have the opportunity to jack up the price of season tickets citing another game being added, and the ability to pivot from a low money, low turnout preseason game, into a 17th game at full value.

The timing of all this isn’t a coincidence. Owners have been floating the 17th game idea for a while, but in the wake of Covid it’s an opportunity to regain lost revenue. Of course, it’s all relative, because the league still totaled $12 billion in earnings, even in spite of having empty stands for the majority of the season.

Hopefully the 17th game won’t really have an impact, but all signs point to this just making football worse. That’s a shame.

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