Debating the NFL's 17-Game Season: Is More Better?

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Conor Orr: Mitch, hello. I think we should write something on the 17-game season. Would you want to fight about it? I remember we had a spirited back-and-forth about the expanded playoffs last year. I said you were wrong and kind of inadvertently called you a nerd in the lede of my column. And then you were right. Perhaps by including both perspectives, there’s less of a chance I look like a dolt.

Mitch Goldich: Conor, hello. Thank you for finally admitting that “Shut up, nerds” was directed at me.

Yes, this is every editor’s dream: To suggest a writer write something and have that writer say, “Actually, you should do half of it.” I don’t know if it’s going to be a fight fight, but count me in.

nfl-football-schedule

CO: Perfect! Just make sure to put my byline first. Glad you've caught on to my increasing laziness.

What I'm about to write sounds incredibly selfish, but if 2020 taught me anything, it's that sometimes you just have to be honest. I like the 17-game schedule for a completely singular reason: It's good for me because I want to watch more football. I am in no position to turn down additional football games. I miss football when it’s not on television.

This may seem like a bit of a startling admission for some people given how loudly I waved the flag for not playing football in 2020. The draft felt gross. The beginning of the season felt horrifying. The game where Dez Bryant, then unwittingly COVID-positive, walked around chatting with all of his old friends and coaches, made me throw my hands up in the air and wonder what we were doing here.

But I watched every single game. And, it was cathartic. And it was three hours where I could complain about Brian Schottenheimer and not think about a pandemic, a political firestorm or the fact that I hadn't seen anything that wasn't the inside of my house for six months. You might say that this kind of intense appreciation will fade once we return to normalcy. It's a fair counterpoint. But I like having the option. If one good thing grew out of 2020 it was hopefully an intense, full-bodied appreciation for the things we love.

MG: I’m not totally surprised to hear you say that. I know who I’m talking to … The MMQB’s foremost expert on the AAF. I know how much you love watching football, and you know I’m the same way.

But I’m still very much against the expanded season. So now I’m in the same weird position you were last year (and which I was at times last year too) of arguing for less football. Who wants to be that guy? It’s not the fun position.

Though I can say—as a guy who once, at the conclusion of a high school wrestling season, attempted to eat an entire Ben & Jerry’s Vermonster bucket in one sitting—that more of something is not always better.

My concern is that it will make the games we actually get worse.

I wrote in 2019 about how lengthening the season will stretch out the final standings. (Think about how teams in other sports get eliminated with so many games left on the schedule.) Mathematically, it should lead to teams clinching earlier, teams having meaningless games earlier, teams engaging in shenanigans by pulling certain players off the field earlier in the season, etc., etc.

You went off on the Eagles after what they did in Week 17 last year. We’re very likely to have even more teams in those situations next year. Does that not concern you?

CO: It does concern me. But a lot of people read that Eagles column (including a note of encouragement I got from a famous, mystery luminary who was really mad at Doug Pederson!) and so I feel like I’d be costing myself some clicks by not trying to circle the wagons around my faux self-righteousness.

See, I would gladly accept the argument in your scenario for two reasons:

One, there will be something to play for in “Week 18.” There will be some reason for the NFL to suck us back onto the couch. I don’t need much. Maybe Week 18 is when we’ll see one or two of the rookie quarterbacks (the guys sitting behind Jimmy Garoppolo and Matt Ryan, for example). Maybe there is another division as sordid and hapless as the 2020 NFC East and we get to drag that out for another week. I think—think—this is the precursor to more flexible scheduling, as I would assume the NFL has digested your concern and found a way to maniacally flip it into a positive for itself. For the most part, bad NFL football is still pretty phenomenal football. The Broncos game last year where they didn’t have a quarterback kind of cemented that for me.

Two, it extends the fantasy football season by a week. I’ve been in the same league for 10 years now with colleague Jenny Vrentas and some other football friends. I love it. I agonize over it. And I’m always, for some reason, getting hosed by some guy who picks up Kenyan Drake on the waiver wire for lulz and pounds me for 120 points.

The elephant in the room here, which you curiously did not lead with, is player safety, which I would guess you’re wielding like a hidden, Shakespearian dagger. It is the biggest counterweight to my take and the most troubling part of this ethical tradeoff I make as someone who earns a living talking about football.

Is this what’s coming next? Do you care about player safety, or is it just about you wanting something more exciting to watch in Week 18?

The Weak-Side Podcast now has its own feed! Subscribe to listen to Conor Orr and Jenny Vrentas every week. 

MG: I do appreciate you pivoting to making points on my side of the argument, but I hope you’re not inferring that I don’t care about player safety just because it wasn’t the first thing I brought up.

I think you’d agree that we are all complicit to some degree in putting aside concerns about health and safety when we gorge on the NFL and consume a 16-game season, which I figure is what you’re referring to when you call it an ethical tradeoff.

I actually think that’s one of the more interesting parts of this news cycle over the last few days. Players like Alvin Kamara, Adrian Amos, Darius Slay and David Johnson, among others, have voiced their opposition to the extra game, and good for them. I think it’s a little too late, given that we’ve all known this was coming since the CBA was signed last year. In Johnson’s defense, he says he advocated against it at NFLPA meetings. And I know others, like Richard Sherman, have spoken out against it before. I’m not saying it was just a wave of guys reacting after the fact. Sherman has said specifically that expanding the schedule is hypocrisy, coming from a league claiming to care about health and safety.

So I was responding more to your “more is better” line of thinking that you started with.

On the topic of injuries: Of course, we know all about the long-term issues that can be caused by adding football games (we as a culture know so much more about the dangers of repeated subconcussive head impacts than we did when the schedule was expanded from 14 games to 16 in 1978). But I also should have clarified that additional injury risk is a big part of the reason I say the product will get worse. More games means more wear and tear on players' bodies, and fewer players left standing upright by the time the playoffs roll around.

Part of the reason I say there will be more shenanigans is because teams will be smart to pull players to prevent injuries. We’re going to see teams play Nate Sudfeld because they don’t want to risk a catastrophic injury to their young starter. We saw a ton of players held out of Week 17 last year, as we always do, either because of a major injury sustained earlier in the season, a minor injury they may have played through if the game was more meaningful or simply to prevent an injury (like, notably, Ben Roethlisberger in Week 17 for a Steelers team that had no chance to earn a bye). And also in tanking situations, let’s be honest.

It’s interesting you bring up fantasy football, because I would argue the fantasy season should not necessarily extend an extra week for the same reason most leagues already exclude the final week and the same point I made above. The last week (and now potentially the penultimate week) will be even more compromised. Let’s see a Week 18 first before move our championships to the new Week 17.

CO: This was always going to come back to Nate Sudfeld, wasn’t it? He’s got to be high on your list of random Philly sports icons.

MG: Conor, did you know the word antepenultimate means third-to-last? I didn’t know that word existed until a few weeks ago when my wife and I were binge watching something and I said we were on the episode before the penultimate one, which prompted us to look up if there was a word for that. Now I plan to use it as much as possible. Also: my lame joke from 2016 that I retweet myself every year is ruined.

Sorry where were we?

CO: There truly is a Mitch tweet for everything.

MG: What do you think about the idea that the quarterback of a team that’s, say, 15–2, might sit for a whole month if his team finishes the season with two meaningless games and then has a first-round bye?

CO: I think that, unless that quarterback is like an aging Ben Roethlisberger or a flailing Eli Manning type in the final stages of his career, it's a silly thing for the coach to do anyway! If he wants to give a player who thrives on rhythm and control a month off, then he is free to expose himself as someone who doesn't understand his team very well. I honestly don't think we're going to see a lot of garbage games sans stars. Not nearly as many as you might think.

Also, all this civil discord has made me hungry. Let’s wrap this up. I’m about to order a Poke bowl.

MG: O.K., I’ll let you go. I guess I’ll finish by saying that of course I’m going to watch all the games. I’m sure I’ll even enjoy them. An extra day of RedZone, and fantasy and coaches emptying the playbook with gadget plays … I mean, you know me, you know I’m in.

I will also concede that if they insisted on adding an extra game to the schedule, the way they did it is smart. I like having the conferences alternating the extra home game and teams playing interconference games against a division they haven’t faced in two years, if we must do something. That’s all fine.

But to bring this full circle, I’m glad you started with our argument last year about the expanded playoffs because I view these moves in tandem and think it’s all connected. I said this on Twitter on Tuesday—and, fine, you can make fun of me for being That Guy who writes an article just to talk about his Tweets—but the NFL’s formula with 32 teams, eight divisions, 16 games and 12 playoff teams just worked so beautifully. It was mathematically perfect, and it bugs me that they are tinkering with a system that worked so well because everyone always needs more.

This is a trend across sports, and probably across all forms of media and entertainment, that everything just has to keep growing forever. The NFL season will eventually be 18 games and go until President’s Day weekend. In the last decade, every sports league became obsessed with the phrase “12-month" league and we are gradually creeping closer to a world where every sport is just on all the time.

But one thing I love about the NFL is that it’s the only sport where you can really watch and digest every single game. We enjoy it as a community—we all watch the same games, and see all the same highlights, and know the broadcasters and the referees and the fantasy players, and text our friends when something big happens, and you can assume most of the people who care about football as much as you are watching. But with the league obsessing over extra weeks, extra playoff games, Saturday doubleheaders, Monday doubleheaders, Tuesday games, 9 a.m. games, Thanksgiving games, Black Friday games, Christmas games … at some point the majority of people are not going to sit down and watch all 285 games. People will find reasons not to watch the games, and I think we’ll lose something that’s really special about the NFL.

CO: Too much of a good thing is indeed detrimental, which is why I'm very carefully crafting this Poke bowl. I think NFL fatigue was a hot button topic a few years ago, but there doesn't seem to be a ton of data supporting that over the long-term. I think the NFL has the advantage of making most people feel like their games are a treat. It can be a treat on a Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday. Will it eventually reach the point of peak saturation? Yes. Is one more game, especially, as you said, a game against an opponent we rarely see the team play, going to tip the scales? No. That feels like another treat. And after last year, I am accumulating treats and savoring every bite.