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Insane idea: teams play 18, players play 16

Posted by Doug on February 12, 2011

I think this is a compromise that still generates a big chunk of the benefit the owners see in an 18-game slate while alleviating the concerns of the players who would prefer 16.

NFL teams have a full 18-game schedule, but each individual player can play in at most 16 regular season games.

As far as I know, it would be unprecedented in any non-little-league sport for a healthy player who wants to play, and whose team wants him to play, to be forced to sit for non-punitive reasons. For that reason alone, this idea could probably never gain any traction. I'm aware of that. And yes, some games would be devalued. There would be lots of local news stories about 7-year-old Tom-Brady-idolizers whose parents paid a month's salary so he could watch Brady explain Polaroids to Brian Hoyer for three hours.

But I think there are some benefits here.

First, let's talk about the main issue with lengthening the schedule: injuries and player safety. Not only would this plan keep injuries from increasing, it might possibly even decrease injuries by allowing players to sit out games with borderline injuries (concussions in particular) that could be aggravated if the player comes back too soon. Suppose Aaron Rodgers gets concussed in the fourth quarter of his week six game. Instead of spending the following week wondering if that mild headache is a serious problem, Rodgers and the Packers have the luxury of just shutting him down. He has to sit two games anyway, so use one of them now. Less pressure to play through minor injuries means fewer major injuries? Maybe. It's conceivable that the NFL's stars might actually miss fewer games to injury under this plan.

On the owners' side, since TV is the only thing that matters, let's focus on that. If the status quo would be worth X dollars per year in TV revenue and a full 18-game slate would be worth X+Y, I have to assume this would be worth at least X + .7Y. It's obviously not worth the full X+Y because TV still only gets 16 games of Peyton Manning. But the NFL's national appeal creates a lot of flexibility for the TV execs. If Manning isn't playing, you just shift the national focus to some other game where all the stars are playing. TV still gets 19 or 20 weeks of real NFL teams playing games that count in the standings.

Verdict for the players: this plan is at least as good as the status quo, and possibly up to 8% better. And it's much, much better than what the owners want.

Verdict for the owners: much better than the status quo. Only a little worse than their proposal.

I've never negotiated my way out of a multi-gazllion dollar impasse before, but I believe that's what's called a compromise.

What about the fans?

They seem to be divided into four groups:

  • Those who favor an 18-game schedule (about 40% of football fans) are in the same boat as the owners. It's a win for them. Not the win they'd ultimately prefer, but an improvement over the status quo.
  • Those who oppose an 18-game schedule because they are sincerely concerned about injuries (.002%). Win.
  • Those who oppose an 18-game schedule because they are sincerely concerned about the dilution of the importance of each given regular season game (.002%). This is the only group that truly loses. It's hard to please everyone. If nothing else, this group might be able to appreciate that a 16/18-game arrangement is better than the zero-game option that looms if no compromise is reached.
  • Those who oppose an 18-game schedule because change terrifies them (59.996%). These people will, of course, claim to be in the group above and scream bloody chop-block. As a change-fearer myself (not on this issue, but on just about everything else), I suggest tough love. Ignore them and press on. Two years later, the thought of switching back to a 16-gamer will offend them just as much as this does now.

Verdict for the fans: eventual win for all but a tiny minority. That's right grouchy; you'll come around.

What about logistics?

There are two ways to do this. One option is to set a weekly deadline for declaring your active roster for the upcoming game. It could be Tuesday, Saturday, or anywhere in between. The other is to have no deadline at all. Either way, you've got some interesting strategical decisions. Do you sit your star early in the season so that he'll be eligible for the stretch run, or do you save his rest games for injury recovery and hope you're not forced to sit him in a meaningful late-season game? Do you spread out your starters' rest weeks or bunch them up, essentially conceding a game or two? Without a roster deadline, you could even gamble: suit Brady up at home against the Bills but start Hoyer. If the game is in hand, you let Brady rest; if not, you call Brady off the bench to lead you to victory. There's lots of strategy there. Coaches would hate it. I think I'd enjoy it, but I can see how some fans might consider it too contrived or artificial to count as real football strategy.

It may just take some Insane Ideas to get us through this offseason. What do you think of this one?