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The NFL’s expansion to 17 regular-season games wasn’t so bad after all

Remember the debates everyone had years ago over the NFL’s desire to expand its regular-season schedule to 17 games?

At first, it was a desire to expand to 18 games, at least that was the belief at the time (probably a wise belief).

Anyway, back to the debates. I don’t even know when they first started, but I believe it was in the early 2010s, or right around the time player safety–especially as it pertained to head trauma and the struggles former players had with it for decades after their careers–became a huge concern with everyone, from the fans to the media to the owners and, obviously, to the players.

The concerns were valid. The cases and tragic stories were just too numerous to ignore. Something had to be done about it, and the league has spent the past decade-plus finding ways to make the game of football safer (or as safe as humanly possible, anyway).

I don’t know if the NFL is safer today than it was pre-2010–these prospects just keep getting bigger, faster and stronger with each passing year–but I do know that there is far greater concern when it comes to concussions and the neurological effects of the repeated blows that take place during an average football game.

The NFL is always under the spotlight when it comes to any sort of head trauma that occurs during a game; there are now safeguards in place to try and protect players from themselves and even from their coaches and teammates when it comes to the pressures of getting back out on the field after having their “bell rung.”

Regardless of the effects of brain trauma, or maybe because of the changes the league made thanks to the public scrutiny over it, the NFL was going to expand its regular-season schedule, there was no doubt about that.

What about the dilution of the product due to an expanded schedule? That was also a concern with the fans, media and players.  But that seemed like a false concern, or at least one that wasn’t grounded in reality.

Was that a concern when the NFL expanded its schedule from 12 to 14 regular-season games way back when? Was it a concern in 1978 when the league expanded from 14 to 16 regular-season games? That was a modern-enough time for the media, players and fans to voice their displeasure in a loud way. Did they?

I’ve never heard or read about any such resistance over the years.

Face it, when owners in professional sports leagues decide that an expanded schedule is the best way to generate more revenue, they’re eventually going to get their way. Sure, it may take a few work stoppages and knock-down, drag-out fights, but the owners will always get what they want in the end.

After all, they control the money.

The NFL finally got its way when the owners and players agreed on an expanded 17-game schedule, starting with the 2021 season. We are now three years into it; does the sport seem watered down? Not really. Don’t get me wrong, it sure does seem over-saturated, but that has more to do with the league’s not-so-secret desire to air/stream its product on our television sets seven days a week than anything else. As for the on-field product? I mean, offense is down in 2023, but that mainly has to do with defenses just being more talented and schematically better right now. Also, we’ve seen many great quarterbacks retire all at once, and most of the youngsters tasked with replacing them have come up short thus far.

Oh, by the way, the league also expanded its postseason field from 12 to 14 teams, starting in 2020. That was another debate that waged on for years, even though it was pretty obvious that NFL owners would ultimately get their way.

Yes, some mediocre teams have made the playoffs–some even with losing records–but that kind of stuff was going on when the postseason field was 12 teams and even 10 teams.

Has expansion–both regular-season and postseason–ruined the NFL for you? Judging by how fanatical people still are about football, I’d have to say that it has not. Expansion is another form of progress, and it was happening in football–in sports, in general–long before social media came along and gave a voice to everyone and their mother (literally).

It’s just a matter of time before the NFL expands its regular-season schedule to 18 games. As for the remaining postseason byes (there is one in each conference)? They will ultimately give way to a 16-team playoff field and no byes.

We’ll probably spend years arguing about it and debating the pros and cons, but it’s going to happen anyway.

And we’ll quickly adapt to it and continue our love affair with football.

Just like our grandchildren will many more years from now when the regular-season schedule is 20 games.


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