Should the NFL Expand to an 18-game Season?

by Tommy Lawlor  –


The NFL season is unlike any other professional sport. Except for those teams with only a couple of wins, every game means something. That makes the regular season special. I realize that going from 16 to 18 games is still a far cry from MLB’s 162 game schedule or the NHL and NBA playing 82 regular season games. I just think that 16 games is the perfect amount for pro football.

The season is long enough that endurance is a major factor in teams having success. Depth is important. Rarely does a team go a season without having to overcome some kind of adversity. At the same time, the season isn’t so long that teams are all in bad shape when the postseason rolls around. Finding the right balance is hard. Injuries can play a major factor in who goes deep in the playoffs.

16 games is enough of a season to sort out who the good teams are, but it is also short enough that there isn’t a lot of separation. We’ve all followed a team that was 5-7 or 6-8 at some point. We sit there calculating what it would take to get into the playoffs. You have to love it when Week 12 or 13 rolls around and the TV guys put up a graphic showing what teams are still alive. You’ll see all but a couple of teams listed. I like that. Some will say that parity is just another word for mediocrity and it is bad for the game. I have no problem with a .500 team challenging for a playoff spot. Football is a game-by-game sport. If an 8-8 team can get into the playoffs and win, so be it.

In a 16-game season, each game has importance. Good teams are working toward the postseason. Bad teams, hopefully, are playing young guys and getting them ready for the future. If a team does have a season completely fall apart, 16 games isn’t so long that it is unbearable to follow. An extra 2 games might not make a major difference, but there is some tipping point when fans will begin not to care what happens. I think there is very little of that in the NFL right now and I think that is critical.

Football is an event sport. You want fans to care. Apathy is the worst thing that could happen to the NFL. You want to keep the season small enough so that casual fans understand the importance of games. People go to bars to watch Monday Night Football. Some fans have parties for a night game. Prime time games mean something special. Football needs that event atmosphere. Will a couple of extra games change that? Probably not, but I think it is smart to err on the side of caution. You never want to find the point at which football is overexposed. That would have a big impact on the sport. It wouldn’t be immediate, but over time people would begin to tune out the NFL and think of it as just another sport. Right now pro football is the king of all sports.

Look at some other sports. College football has expanded the amount of bowl games to the point where it no longer has significant meaning. I remember reading an article in the USA Today back in the early 80s about an 8-3 team that wasn’t going to a bowl. Now the question is “will there be enough teams to fill all the spots?”. Take a look at NASCAR. Back in 1992 drivers had 29 races. There was great demand for seats. Ratings were good. The season expanded to 36 races over time. The sport opened new tracks and went to new regions. Things were great for a while, but now the situation isn’t so good. Ratings are declining. So is attendance. NASCAR isn’t on shaky ground, but it is headed in the wrong direction.

In the NFL we’re just talking about 2 games. For now. NASCAR didn’t add the additional 7 races at once. They added them here and there. College football didn’t add all the bowl games at once. The NFL may see initial positive results from the extra games. Will they stop there? I’m sure some people will accuse me of being dumb for fighting a fight that doesn’t yet exist. Why worry about expanding beyond 18 games when that isn’t the subject? Once you break the seal, change comes easily. The longer the status quo stays in place, the harder it is to change.

Let’s say we do expand to 18 games. When do you play the extra 2 games? Do you put them in the summer? No. People are still on vacation. The weather is brutally hot in some places. Bad idea. That means we extend the season into January, the heart of winter. That’s hardly ideal.

There is a good symmetry to the NFL season as is. It starts in late summer. Heat is a factor. Teams like Miami have an advantage. Most of season is played in the fall. That makes life easy on the fans and players. The season ends in early winter. That gives northern teams an advantage. It allows us to see a couple of snow games a year. We don’t have to deal with brutal temperatures for the most part. We do get some horrid postseason games, but fans have no problem with frigid conditions when they’re watching the playoffs.

I’ve covered all the oddball stuff. Now it is time for the aspect we don’t know about…injuries. How many ACLs will get torn in the extra couple of games? The injuries that occur late in the year would affect the playoffs and the next season. I have no idea what kind of numbers we’d be talking about. All it takes is one injury if that happens to a key player for your team.

What about residual wear? Someone playing 8 years would actually have played the equivalent of 9 “old” seasons. Could those extra games shorten some careers? Could the wear and tear of the extra games affect players post-football health? We’re just now starting to really find out about the long term effects of playing football.

Finally…teams would only play 2 preseason games. Fans love this idea, but coaches and players won’t agree. We would now have starters play the first half of Game 1. The 2s would play the 3rd quarter. The 3s would play the 4th. In the 2nd game the starters would play longer and then the backups would get in for the 4th quarter. Teams wouldn’t be able to make as informed an opinion on backups and fringe players. Believe it or not, some guys who barely make the final cut go on to have good careers. Priest Holmes didn’t clinch a spot on the Ravens roster until the final preseason game of his rookie year. Who knows what happens if he gets cut.

Leave a good thing alone.  16 games is the way to go.

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