Opinion: 17-game NFL season will force players, teams to prepare for heavier toll

One of the longest-running debates in modern times on the NFL landscape is over. The NFL has officially flicked the switch on a 17-game season.

No, the support from the rank-and-file poised to collect a few more bruises is hardly unanimous. As Alvin Kamara, the explosively versatile New Orleans Saints running back, expressed in a recent Tweet: “(Expletive) dumb…as hell.” 

Just don’t say you’re surprised, Alvin. NFL owners and the NFL Players Association hammered out the expanded schedule last year as an essential element to the 11-year extension of their labor deal. We’ve seen this coming for some time.

That’s why Richard Sherman, the savvy veteran cornerback who so often reflects the conscience of NFL players — and has railed in the past against 17 games — was rather mellow after NFL owners voted in the measure during their virtual meetings on Tuesday.

“No reaction other than this is what we agreed to, smh,” Sherman texted to USA TODAY Sports.

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San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman (25) encourages the crowd before a play against the Cleveland Browns in the second quarter at Levi's Stadium. (Photo: Cary Edmondson, Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports)

Never mind what Commissioner Roger Goodell said in trying to spin it as an “enhanced” schedule rather than an “expanded” slate, maintaining that with the preseason reduced to three games, it’s still a 20-game configuration. What a kidder. Did he see those fourth preseason games? It’s apples vs. oranges, given that fourth preseason games featuring bottom-of-the-roster hopefuls trying to make the final cut don’t compare to blood-and-guts regular season clashes with playoff berths at stake.

In any event, 17 is the deal.

“You might as well embrace it,” Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians, with a fresh Super Bowl 55 tattoo, said during a media conference on Tuesday. “You don’t have a choice. Embrace it and make sure you’re ready for it.”

Arians said the schedule adjustment likely won’t cause him to alter methods during the offseason regimen, which is moving closer to the pre-pandemic structure as the league in consultation with the NFLPA has marked April 19 for the opening of organized team workouts. During the season, though, Arians expects he will be even more vigilant in managing practice reps for his players as a matter of physical preservation. He wonders about the positioning of the bye week, which is pretty much a luck-of-the-draw occurrence. Later is better, especially with 17 games. Last season, the Bucs didn’t have their bye until Week 13, the final byes. And we see how that turned out.

“If you have an early ‘open date’ on a 17-game schedule, that’s going to be a grind in December,” Arians said. “Last year, I didn’t like having a Week 13 (bye), but I’d probably rather have a Week 10-13 open date with a 17-game schedule…But yeah, it’ll be different.”

Even without adjustments made last year due to the pandemic, the league began instituting measures in the new labor deal that directly or indirectly account for a 17-game season. Although the roster size remained at 53 players barring the elevation of one or two practice-squad players, the size of practice squads were increased to 12 (14, beginning in 2022). The practice squad slots that previously only could be used for players with less than two years experience, included a maximum of four slots for veterans, regardless of tenure. Active lists for game day were increased from 46  to 48, provided that eight of the players were offensive linemen.

On top of all that, here’s one 2020 tweak that needs to remain, given the extra game: more flexibility to move players from injured reserve lists. Although the league had previously moved off the notion that all players placed on IR would be lost for the season, given that some injuries take weeks rather than months to heal, it further liberalized the IR measures last year in dealing with the pandemic. That flexibility, with more IR slots, needs to become permanent with a 17-game slate.

After all, attrition is inherent to the NFL business model. It’s why Arians talks about precious practice reps and why Kamara grumbled about an extra game.

For all that the NFL has done to increase safety and promote wellness — including dozens of rules changes over the past decade and evolving standards for helmets and other equipment — adding another game seemingly flies in the face of such efforts. 

Your instincts might suggest that whatever the injury risk was for a 16-game season goes up a notch with 17 games.

Of course, Goodell will tell you otherwise as the “enhanced” schedule fuels an “enhanced” bottom line. The Commissioner insists that the league is “following the science” in finally moving forward with 17 games.

The data, Goodell said, maintains that “the highest rate of injuries is actually in a preseason game of any of our games or even our practices.”

It’s just that the injuries to front-line players that come in October seem to really resonate.

“What we’re actually doing is following the data,” Goodell said, "following the science to make sure that we’re doing things both from a health and safety standpoint as well as seeking always to get better in every way.”

As Goodell mentioned, the topic of 17 games was an issue before the last CBA was struck in 2011. It’s been a desire of NFL owners for at least that long, yet it took the most recent labor deal for players to get on board — or at least enough of the players.

Maybe the data supports it, as it did in squashing the concerns we used to hear about the potential for more injuries in Thursday night games. But without money in this equation, there’s not much need for the data. Let’s be real: the 17-game slate adds inventory that is significant for the huge payout increase the NFL will receive with its new media deal, which will bring in $10 billion per year — nearly double the cash from the previous media deal.

Sure, the players will get their cut inside a pay structure governed by a salary cap. The 17th game raises the players share of the revenues to 48.5% from 48%. Over the course of 10 years, that half-percentage bump equates to $5 billion. That’s hardly chump change, but it clearly comes with the cost of additional toll on the bodies and risk for the players who provide the extra entertainment and pop of a 17th game.

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