18 Games? Bag It, Commissioner

For his reputation, and the good of the NFL, Roger Goodell needs to forget about expanding the schedule
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As we’ve been reminded time and again in recent years, the world’s most powerful sports league and its forward-leaning commissioner, Roger Goodell, are not afraid of bold new ideas. But here’s a novel concept for the NFL, rarely broached, whose time has come: Less is more.

Not really new, is it? Except in the bigger-always-equals-better mindset with which the NFL operates. In the NFL, the arrow always points in the direction of more. More revenue streams. More exposure and content. More popularity and higher ratings. More is the league’s unofficial mantra, driven by cash-hungry owners.

But the time feels right for a recalibration, and that shift should emanate from the very top, in Goodell’s powerful Park Avenue office. In short, the 18-game regular-season idea needs to go away. For good. And for the good of the game.

Goodell is the man who can make it happen. For several years now he has been the concept’s biggest proponent, and no one’s voice will carry more weight when he reverses field and withdraws his support for the dubious idea of extending the NFL’s four-month regular season to four and a half. His words and actions can put an end to the debate, and he’d be wise to do so.

Here’s why: The players are watching this issue more closely than any other in terms of how they view the commissioner with the iron fist. Two years removed from the bitterness of the 2011 labor standoff, Goodell has an opportunity this season to tack back to the center and counter the players’ widespread perception that his top priority is to do the owners’ bidding and grow the league’s ever-expanding financial pie.

Whether Goodell admits it or not, the push for the 18-game schedule, awkwardly juxtaposed as it is against the backdrop of the league’s player safety initiatives, is seen as a litmus test of whether he truly cares as much as he claims about the good of the game and its players. The high-profile focus on taking better care of players while asking them to put their bodies on the line for two more real games will never make sense to most of the men who suit up, and explaining that contradiction in any terms other than the league’s financial benefit is a challenge Goodell has yet to successfully meet.

The commissioner, of course, can’t put the quest for popularity among players above all else. But in this case, perceptions matter, because they can become reality. Goodell can’t care too much about what the players think, but he can’t care too little, either. Both approaches are dangerous.

That’s why this is a defining issue for Goodell. By standing up to the owners, he will prove that his intentions are good and his principles in tact. Whatever the problems that exist with the NFL’s four-game preseason—and there are some—the risks outweigh the potential rewards of adding another two games to the war of attrition that unfolds from September through December.

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Goodell could win over players and re-earn their respect by showing a willingness to re-consider the 18-game schedule, and I’m convinced that if he misses this opportunity, he’ll have a devil of a time ever finding another issue as big and meaningful in which to send the same powerful message.  It would be a bold and decisive statement to the players that his mind remains open.

The image of Goodell as the league’s heavy-handed enforcer is too one-dimensional. Goodell’s reputation for discipline is well-established, but now he needs to show he can develop another part of his game. In the narrative of battle that has grown between Goodell and the NFL’s players of late, it would represent an act of sportsmanship on the commissioner’s part. You won this one, he could say; I concede.

Even better for the commissioner, he has built up the clout and the capital with the owners to afford such a call, and survive it. Easily. He won’t make the owners happy with the move, because an 18-game regular season would make them all wealthier, but they would live with his decision and follow his lead. There could be some anonymous sniping about a sizable opportunity lost, but no one is going to seriously rock the boat or stage a mutiny over the 18-game schedule.

And frankly, abandoning the idea is the right thing to do not just for Goodell’s reputation; it’s the right thing to do, period. It’s time he gets back on ground that’s both defensible and reasonable, and the NFL’s quest for greater safety makes it all the more imperative that he err on the side of caution. The tie should go to the players on this one—it’s their bodies at stake with the addition of two more games.

Goodell is quick to point out that fans constantly tell him they don’t like the watered-down product on display in the preseason and that the four-week schedule of exhibitions is too long. But what’s always missed with that logic is that complaining about the NFL’s current preseason isn’t the same as asking for two more games to be added to the regular season.

It’s the absurdity of charging full ticket prices for these games—a showcase for backups, fringe players and guys who will never make a roster—that fans truly revolt against. Charge a fraction of the current price, and most fans will rightly see the preseason for what it is: a month-long necessity that helps a team whittle its squad, grow some chemistry and prepare for the long NFL regular season. But the league would never seriously consider doing away with the sham of full-price preseason tickets, obviously. Too much money lost.