The Baltimore Orioles were eliminated from playoff contention on August 23. Strange way to begin a football column, I know, but hang in there. The Orioles served as one of last spring and summer’s poster boys for a sweeping trend across sports, entering 2019 in full-on tank mode. It went well. After racking up 88 losses in their first 129 games, they became the first team mathematically eliminated from postseason contention. At that point, the team had nothing to play for by the traditional standard of competitive sports, but still had to slog through 33 more meaningless baseball games until the schedule-makers mercifully ran out of ink.
Now, to the NFL. There are many differences between baseball and football, but for our purposes let’s stick to the notable difference in schedule between one league that plays 162 games and one that plays 16. For now, at least.
We’ve all heard plenty about schedule expansion over the years. The owners want 18 games, and have for some time. Let’s be honest: They’d probably want 20 or 22 if they thought they could get away with it. After several years of floating 18-game trial balloons, we saw either a concession or a shift in strategy earlier this year when reports came out that there was momentum building toward a 17-game compromise. (Although that depends who you ask. When this very publication aggregated that reporting and tweeted it out, NFLPA Vice President Richard Sherman quote tweeted SI and said, “We continue to have discussions but we are nowhere near an agreement. There are points of contention on both sides that need to be addressed before more progress is made.”)
So, about those Orioles, who were officially eliminated in late August, but—I promise you—were playing meaningless games well before that. This is simple math. The longer the season, the more teams get eliminated from playoff contention with more games still on the calendar. We see it in the NBA too, with its 82-game slate. And this isn’t just about teams tanking like the Orioles or the Sixers. Countless basketball teams over the years have given the playoff hunt an honest shot into February or March and then quickly pivoted to a “different” strategy. Or, simply been eliminated with 5-10 games left and then played out the string. Again, it’s simple math. The longer teams have to separate themselves in the win column, the harder it is to stay bunched.
This weekend we embark on Week 16 of the NFL season. (Drink every time you hear the word penultimate!) The playoff race is heating up. You’re excited; I’m excited. Patriots-Bills! Vikings-Packers! Eagles-Cowboys! This is a fun time of year, with great games featuring the highest stakes. But we have to be honest with ourselves and recognize how many insignificant games dot the schedule too. Frankly, it’s a pretty weak slate. There are six games between two teams that have already been eliminated: Falcons-Jaguars, Colts-Panthers, Dolphins-Bengals, Redskins-Giants, Broncos-Lions and Chargers-Raiders. (Technically the Browns and Raiders hold onto <1% chances of making it in, but remember what I said about being honest with ourselves.)
Look at those games. Do you like watching NFL RedZone on Sundays? I just rattled off six of the 11 games in that window. More than half. And those are just the games with both teams out. Several more give us one team in the hunt and one team out of it, like Browns-Ravens, Jets-Steelers and Seahawks-Cardinals. The Bears and Chiefs may very well give us a fun game, but the reason it’s being played at night is because there simply weren’t enough important alternatives to flex a different one in.
The problem will repeat itself next week too, when even more teams will have meaningless games after either getting locked into certain seeds or knocked out of the race entirely.
I have long been against expanding the schedule, for many reasons. I’ll keep this short, and won’t get into all of them here. Today, on the eve of so many inconsequential games, I just want to focus on a rebuttal to expansion that’s most relevant and timely as we cross into late December. Mathematically, expanding the schedule is likely to weaken the end of the season. You know, the time we should be getting more excited about the big games.
A surge in earlier clinching scenarios could also have a major impact on the teams whose games do matter. Mike Garofolo reported that the Ravens would likely bench soon-to-be MVP Lamar Jackson for Week 17 if they have the AFC’s top seed locked up, no matter the game’s playoff ramifications for the Steelers. (Though John Harbaugh says they haven’t decided yet.) With extra games added to the end of the schedule, this would only happen more. And who could blame the teams for using them as a competitive advantage before the playoffs?
In other sports we’re used to seeing days, weeks or occasionally months of meaningless games. The NFL may ultimately decide it’s fine. That one more week of a marquee game at 4:25 and 8:20 is worth a hefty crop of useless filler at 1:00. But we should all be aware of the many unintended consequences. And one of them could easily be a spike in games that dilute the overall product
There are always outliers and exceptions. Fans of the Bucs or Browns may be reading this right now thinking, “Hey, that’s not true. If the season was one game longer, we might still have a chance to get back in it!” And that may be true of some late-charging teams. But even if you can look past the added toll on players’ bodies, potential schedule inequalities if teams get extra home games or the player safety concerns of playing more neutral games on non-NFL fields, the general point remains. On the whole, for every team that staves off elimination one week further from the start of the season, there’s another that comes to terms with reality one week further from the end. Try a thought experiment. Imagine what the standings would look like going into Week 4 if that was the final game of the season. Now imagine what they’d look like going into Week 30.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited for Week 16. I plan to watch every minute of Patriots-Bills. And Eagles-Cowboys. And Rams-49ers.
But on Sunday, you may find yourself sitting on your couch wondering why there are so many bad games. Then the Sunday after the Super Bowl, you may find yourself wishing for one more week of good games. In that moment, think about Redskins-Giants or Dolphins-Bengals and remember that the bad games come with them.
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