Hines Ward has a point. The veteran Steelers’ receiver believes that he might be the “last double-digit guy” to play in the NFL, meaning that once the season is extended to 18 games, most players are going to retire from football before they reach a decade of playing time. Ward, like other NFL athletes, usually has a difficult time finishing out the season—the wear and tear from frequent blocking, tackling, and running can take a mean toll throughout the year for any NFL athlete. ESPN.com mentioned that Ward’s shoulders ache badly with every pass reception, and his legs take heavy wear and tear on artificial turf surfaces, not to mention he gets tackled by some of the world’s biggest and fastest athletes.
Although the proposal for adding two games includes taking away two games from the preseason, there can be no denying the vast differences in pre-season and regular season play when it comes to taking a toll on first-string, first-rate players like Ward.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and a large proportion of league owners want the extended season, because, as Goodell says, it “would give fans more games worth watching and eliminate some that are next to meaningless.” Also, it must be noted, the fans aren’t so crazy about the preseason, either.
But let’s call this for what it is: Money. I can guarantee you Goodell isn’t supporting this because of the soft spot in his heart for the fans, and just as well the players certainly want to get paid the most they can get. As the NFL has become more commercialized and organized throughout the years, the seasons have increased in length—in the 1950s, schedules were 12 games long; in the 60s it grew to 14 games. With a longer stretch of 18 games, we’re likely to see a lot of extra money changing hands—through TV channel deals, advertisements, ticket sales, concessions—so far at the expense of the players. But should we care? They, after all, are making hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, and they are playing to the wishes of the fan base. At least the players don’t seem to be hiding behind the pretense that they are only concerned about injuries and time on the road.
“I might get in trouble, I might get a call, but it’s all about money,” said Steelers safety Ryan Clark. “If you want guys to play 18 games, there is some ways guys are going to have to be compensated for that.” Clark also made a good observation when he said that the NFL is contradicting itself after levying new rules to protect players from concussions and injuries, yet is now pushing to put players into a new realm of injury threats.
Steelers’ Charlie Batch has the dubious distinction of being the team’s player representative, and he, according to ESPN, is opposed to expansion because of the risk of injury, something injury-prone Batch knows well. But even he, like others, admits the concept of a longer season in the 21st century will be a new beast. But what can we expect to change? What should we look for?
1. Injuries will rise: Yes, there might be an equal amount of games, but seriously folks, preseason football is like watching college lacrosse—mildly entertaining, but in the end nobody outside of the lacrosse community really cares. In the NFL pre-season we get to watch for new talent, unused quarterbacks, and third stringers trying to make the cut, but without the fun and fanfare of a good intercollegiate game. Lackluster performances by the first-tiered starters mar the action, and the heat is dialed way down, compared to the spine-shaking hits and daring passes into double tomahawk coverage that accompanies play later on in the season–when it counts.
2. The hidden talent dynamic will shift: According to technews.com, Peyton Manning and Jeff Saturday,the Colts’ quarterback and center, believe an 18-game season could work severely against undrafted rookies that are trying to make the team. Indianapolis is one of the league’s best at discovering overlooked and hidden talent, and could very well suffer from the advantages of pre-season rookie jubilees. Untested and unproven players will have fewer opportunities to showcase their talents in real games, and will therefore miss out on valuable roster positions.
3. The roster size will expand: As players become injured, strained, and fatigued, someone will have to fill the gaps, so we should anticipate larger drafting pools and a deeper dip into the well of new talent.
4. Network TV wars: This depends on how the NFL sorts out the bye weeks. They might altogether lose the bye weeks (in order to ratchet out a more fluid, regular season schedule), and fuse a schedule that lands games on Thursdays and Saturdays, which might cause the divorce rate to skyrocket. Does this mean we’re going to have more regular games going to cable coverage? It’s already a nasty smack against the blue collar Joes and Janes that can’t afford to watch ESPN for some Monday Night Football action. It just ain’t American.
5. The NCAA might get angry: If games are pushed into Saturday, we’ll be watching two bloated, cumbersome, money-hogging juggernauts slapping each other upside the helmet for financial rights to the Saturday piece of football pie. Think about it. Texas/OU’s Red River Rivalry, or the Cowboy/Redskins game? Some fans will probably spontaneously explode, or fantasy football players won’t have enough time to scout players prior to their fantasy drafts.
6. Losing teams will hurt more financially: By the NFL’s statistics, 14 franchises didn’t make money or were in the red last year. Let’s imagine the Raider fans being asked to pick up a hike in revenue to cover the cost of two more games that nobody wants to attend. You tell them the news, because I’m not going to do it.
7. What about the (not so little) linemen?: Getting personal, Sean Bubin, a friend and former NFL lineman, spoke to me about the dregs of being on the line. Bubin was drafted in 2004 by the Jaguars, and he played for the Lions and Vikings before spending time abroad with the Hamburg Sea Devils for NFL Europe—he retired at the ripe old age of 26. “I seized up—I couldn’t bend my limbs anymore,” said Bubin. “It happens to a lot of us.” Medical News Today cites that the average NFL career length in 2008 was 4.6 years, and only 7% of players made it past Hines Ward’s magic double-digit number of 10 seasons in the league. We may say we’re paying NFL players a boatload of money, but when you waste your body away in four or five years, that money better be worth it. According to the Boston Globe, Bubin only made $360,000 in his final, one-year contract with the New England Patriots.
8. DUI incidents will rise: Okay, so I made this one up, but it sounded good. And I’ll probably be right.