The NFL continues to want an 18-game regular season, as an uncharacteristically candid Jerry Jones recently admitted. But how can the league reconcile playing 18 regular season games with the supposed commitment to player health and safety?
Oh, they can try to tiptoe through the two-less preseason games argument. But with more and more starters playing fewer and fewer preseason games, no one will buy the notion that it’s a zero-sum game to subject starters to 18 regular season games and “only” two preseason contests.
There’s a potential solution that quietly has been making the rounds for several years. Most will scoff upon hearing it for the first time, but it’s possible to warm up to the idea after thinking and talking it through. The concept entails staging 18 regular season games per team but allowing players to participate in no more than 16 each.
That would instantly overcome the health and safety argument, since it would expose players to no more games than they currently play. (That said, injured players who for example miss two games and play 14 under the current structure of the season would potentially miss two games and still play 16.) Kickers and punters, and maybe even quarterbacks (given the protections they enjoy), would be exempt. For everyone one (and possibly for quarterbacks), the limit would be 16.
Think of the strategic challenges and opportunities this would present for creative coaches. Think of the problems it would cause for coaches who don’t know what they’re doing. Think of the possibility of the 2008 Lions and 2017 Browns eventually joining the 1976 Buccaneers as team’s with winless records that no longer would be pointed to as the worst season ever.
While hypothetical for now, the owners remain quietly (or otherwise) committed to expanding the regular season from 16 to 18 games, even if that ultimately means letting players play no more than 16 games in 18.