As the Vikings return to practice Sunday, there aren't going to be many questions about the first preseason game. If the NFL ever needed reason to advocate and promote an 18-game regular season schedule – which has consistently been discussed the last few years – it's what has become of the preseason.
It can be argued nobody has more to prove this year for the 2013 edition of the Vikings than Christian Ponder. In his home debut, he was in for all of two plays – while Adrian Peterson watched from the sidelines sans pads. It isn't all that unfamiliar. It's hard to imagine there were hard-core fans back in the day when teams had six preseason games.
There is a basic flaw in how the NFL starts and ends its season. Training camp practices can only be taken seriously every other session. When players wear sunglasses to a practice, you can bet there isn't going to be anything meaningful done other than to stretch out for the afternoon practice. The Pro Bowl is the weakest of the all-star games because, with the violent nature of football, a midseason all-star game isn't possible. With injury a constant concern, it is a joke by design.
The same, it would seem, is true for the preseason. Just as the Pro Bowl is an exhibition, it isn't football. Safeties and defensive ends don't look for the "light's out" hit that has helped make the NFL the sport of choice for consumers the last 20 years.
As things currently stand, here is the scripted preseason play list for the NFL. Game One: sit your veteran stars and give the rest of your starters one or two series. If things go well on the first one, leave on a high note. If you stink on the first series, do it again. Game Two: The starters play a quarter or maybe a drive into the second quarter, but are padless by halftime. Game Three: The game to watch. Starters play the first half. Coaches make adjustments. They play one series into the third quarter. Game Four: See Game One.
The funny part about the 18-game proposal was that agents and the union would make sure that their clients got the commensurate bump in pay scale from 16 to 18 games. But I don't think I've ever spoken to a player who has advocated going to 18 games. It would mean more money, but the grind of a 20-game season for everyone and as much as a 24-game season for a Super Bowl team would mean taking a significant beating as the price for hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. "Real" football is played in January and beyond, not August.
The current preseason schedule would dictate that the first and fourth games be eliminated because fans would watch one quarter of the starters and one half-plus of a second game – and pay full price for the privilege if they are season ticket holders.
So is the 18-game schedule coming? Maybe. The owners can unilaterally institute it if they want a blood bath at the next union negotiation. But there is a compromise solution available that not only might be agreed upon, but makes too much sense not to be a potentially successful solution for both owners and the players association.
It's a simple three-point plan. It may be a tad arcane, but, if viewed in total, as bad actors have said too many times, "It may sound crazy, but it just might work."
1. In return for reducing the number of preseason games, teams are allowed to get more aggressive in their own practice sessions at training camp – giving them in-house film to go on and some film that would have to be sent to other teams. It gives undrafted free agents more of a chance to raise eyebrows and makes the decision-making more accountable. After all, like few others, this is a business … and a business of personal accountability.
2. Add one regular season game. This can be done relatively easily while maintaining a competitive balance. At Week 10 of the new 19-week season, schedule games in which all 32 non-conference opponents play one another based on their previous season ranking within their conference. The best plays the best. The worst plays the worst. No. 5 plays No. 5, etc. In order to maintain an equal playing field, in odd-numbered years, all of the games are played at home by all members of one conference. In even-numbered years, it reverts.
3. Add a second bye week. This was tried and failed, but the NFL has never fully grasped the concept of scheduling bye weeks. It's easily solved, but the Ivy League NFL suits haven't figured it out yet. In what would be a 19-week schedule in a 17-game season, teams are slotted with bye weeks by division and, when they return from their bye, they play division opponents. The same competitive advantage exists and, more importantly, the NFL can maximize its regional rivalries – even highlight the history of rivalries like the Bears-Packers or The Battle of Ohio. It's the only fair way to add a second bye week.
By doing these three simple steps, the NFL can present its brand for 21 weeks in games that actually mean something. Calling the games played over the last three days as Week 2 of the preseason is fraudulent. Those games stink from the fan's perspective. Week Four (or five by NFL standards) is similar in being virtually meaningless in the eyes of a rabid fan base.
Under this plan, the players won't get beaten into the ground as they would with an 18-game regular season and, by timing the bye weeks to be divisional and symmetrical, the NFL could enhance its own brand by presenting its product to promote longstanding rivalries of the teams returning from bye weeks and playing on the "nostalgia" of the NFL.
In the end, the NFL gets what it wants – increasing the regular season television rights package to 19 weeks from the current 17 weeks – and players don't have to suffer at the expense of billionaires becoming multibillionaires.
It makes too much sense. Perhaps that's why it probably won't work.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Holler: Preseason needs altering
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