Plenty of skeptics believe that the league’s intent to alter its calendar, moving the draft from April to May and the Scouting Combine from February to March, arises not from a desire to expand the league’s footprint during the offseason but to lay the foundation for an expansion of the season.
On Tuesday, Commissioner Roger Goodell gave credence to those concerns by once again pointing out that the 18-game regular season remains a possibility.
“[The options] are all on the table,” Goodell said at a press conference that concluded the quarterly ownership meetings in Boston. “As I have said before, I think the structure of the season is something that we consistently reevaluate. I have been quite open about [indicating that] we have to address the quality of the preseason. I hear from fans consistently that they want to make every NFL event more valuable. They see the preseason as being less valuable to them because they don’t see the best players and the games do not count. We have to address that, whether we are looking at 18 [regular-season games] and two [preseason games] or 16-and-two and expanded playoffs. They are all on the table and things we are going to evaluate.”
Nudging the draft and the Scouting Combine deeper into the calendar would help accommodate a Super Bowl played two weeks later, which would in most years put it on President’s Day weekend. But the shift of the start of free agency from the middle of March to early March would arguably put too much of a pinch on the Super Bowl teams, which will have less time to negotiate with their looming free agents before they hit the market — or before the deadline for using the franchise tag.
Of course, the crowding of the Super Bowl and the start of free agency could be aimed at persuading the NFLPA eventually to say, “You know, we should move the start of free agency to April,” which the NFL reportedly wanted when talk of adjusting the calendar first emerged.
The bigger challenge for the league remains getting the NFLPA eventually to say, “You know, we should just play 18 regular-season games.” Two years ago, the thinking was that, if/when the league exercised its unilateral ability under the new CBA to shrink the preseason from four to two games, the union would calculate the impact of the lost revenue on the salary cap, compare it to the influx of revenue with the addition of two regular-season games, and not just agree to but insist on a move from 16 to 18. Since then, it has become harder to reconcile player health and safety with adding two games that count, and it’s hard to imagine the NFLPA accepting 18 games unless the league adopts the idea that every player would be limited to 16 appearances.
For those (like us) who think 18 games would be overkill, it’s encouraging that Goodell mentioned the possibility of 16-and-2 plus expanded playoffs as an alternative. Expanding the postseason would potentially replace the revenue lost by scrapping half of the preseason. Sure, it would mean one more game — but only for either four (if the field expands to 14) or eight (if the field grows to 16).
The league may be years away from resolving the issue. With each passing season, however, it’s harder to tolerate a four-game preseason — especially since Goodell has made it clear in recent years that the quality of those games is unacceptable.