A typical regular season for a high school football team is 10 or 11 games. At the collegiate level, 11 was the standard for quite some time, but just about every program has 12 games on the schedule now.
So does the NFL really need to go 50 percent beyond what colleges and universities are doing these days and institute an 18-game season?
If Commissioner Roger Goodell – and the 32 team owners, of course, for whom The Commish works – gets his wish in the new collective bargaining agreement, 18 games could be reality as soon as the 2012 campaign.
"We want to do it the right way for everyone," Goodell said Wednesday at an owners meeting in Atlanta, "including the players, the fans and the game in general. There's a tremendous amount of momentum for it. We think it's the right step."
More than ever, four preseason games seems like too much, as the first and last one hardly feature the starters at all and tend to be glorified practices between second and third stringers – many of them will be working stiffs like the rest of us once rosters are cut to 53 before Week 1. Trimming down to two exhibition contests makes a lot of sense for all parties, from the players that don't want to play them to the coaches that don't want to prepare for them to the fans that don't want to watch (and pay) for them. It's ludicrous to think that the NFL once had six preseason games, which was indeed the case back when Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus suited up at Wrigley Field.
However, owners aren't going to give up two paydays on the front end of the schedule unless they get an opportunity to recoup that money – and potentially a whole lot more – on the back end, which is why two meaningless games will be eliminated only if two meaningful games are added.
The NFL expanded from 14 games to today's 16-game format in 1978, and then bye weeks were introduced in 1990 to stretch the season and, therefore, generate more television revenue. Said TV money is shared equally among the 32 teams and has been vital – along with the salary cap, which was instituted in 1994 – in maintaining competitive balance throughout the league. The 16 games are a product of two games each against three division opponents; one game each against four same-conference, different-division opponents; one game each against four other-conference, different-division opponents; and then one game each against two same-conference opponents that finished in the same place in their own divisions the year before.
It's a fair formula giving each division rival 14 games against the same competition, with the two remaining games simply designed to allow good teams to play other good teams and bad teams to play other bad teams.
So not only would moving from 16 games to 18 complicate what appears to be a foolproof way of designing each team's schedule, but asking the players to participate in two additional 60-minute car crashes is a risky proposition altogether.
"The longer you're out there playing, the more your body breaks down and the more susceptible you are to injuries," said Bears tight end Desmond Clark, an 11-year veteran. "When you get into December, you're like a walking zombie. You can't feel your joints. You're all beat up. Everybody is the same way, which is why the game is still played at the same level by every team, but it's difficult to be out there. To lengthen that schedule, you're putting more pounding on the body that's already to the point where it's even hard to get up and walk."
Presently, players don't have as much time to recover from a long season as they did a generation ago, as teams now have offseason programs stuffed with minicamps, which are mandatory, and OTAs, which are voluntary – albeit not really voluntary.
"If players would ever agree to something like [lengthening the regular season], it would be with limitations on the length of offseason training, limitations on the amount of hitting allowed in practice and in training camp," said Hunter Hillenmeyer, a seven-year veteran and Chicago's representative to the players union. "There needs to be a tradeoff ... if it's going to make players less safe."
Nevertheless, when all is said and done, the players will ultimately say yes to a longer regular season for the same reason the owners want it in the first place: money.
"There's a reason why you make a lot of money playing football," said Olin Kreutz, a 12-year veteran and a Bears team captain. "It's a dangerous thing to do. We walk out there, and we know it's dangerous. That's what we sign up for. But to put us out there for two more games for the same money, that's insane."
While its postseason may be a complete buzzkill, college football has the best regular season in all of sports because there are only 12 games and every one of them is life-or-death – a single blemish can oftentimes kill national-championship aspirations. The NFL doesn't have the same one-and-done system, but 16 games is still just one-fifth of what they play in the NBA and only one-tenth of what they play in MLB. Compared to basketball and baseball, even 18 isn't that many.
But if there are 12.5 percent more football games every year, does that make each one of them 12.5 percent less meaningful?
Here's what would surely be less meaningful: 1,000-yard seasons for running backs. With 18 chances, it would take only 55.6 yards per game for a ball carrier to reach that figure, down from a more respectable 62.5. Ditto for wide receivers. Perhaps Chicago could have a 4,000-yard quarterback for the first time in franchise history, as it would take just 222.2 yards per game, as opposed to an even 250.
Yet, if the premier runners, receivers and passers all get injured from exposing their already-damaged bodies to extra punishment, maybe those statistical achievements won't see any sort of noticeable spike anyway.
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John Crist is the Publisher of BearReport.com, a Heisman Trophy voter and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.
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