Well now, that Monday night Rams-Buccaneers game was a reasonably diverting affair, wasn’t it? The defending champs against a team trying to regain championship form after a down year. ABC had a nice little tribute to the late hockey coach Herb Brooks. Nice way to end up the exhibition season.
What’s that you say?
You have GOT to be joking! It can’t be true that the preseason has two weeks to go. The NFL takes longer to get ready than J.Lo on a big night.
Most teams play four exhibition games, which is a quarter of a season. The Bucs and the Jets will play five this year. That’s the equivalent of 31 percent of a regular schedule. By contrast, most baseball teams play a little under 20 percent of a regular season’s schedule in spring training, and baseball is a lot less hazardous to one’s health than football is. NBA teams play eight preseason games, less than 10 percent of their season, and NHL teams generally play 10, which is about 12 percent.
And all of those preseasons are too long.
What’s the point of this endless succession of meaningless games? The coaches will tell you that they’re evaluating talent, putting their systems in place, that sort of thing.
I’ll let Troy Aikman swat that point down. In a column on NFL.com this week, the former Cowboys quarterback declares himself a fan of the preseason, writing that exhibition games aren’t meaningless, as many fans and typists call them. He writes that it’s important for teams to get in the habit of winning, and that the games are indeed important opportunities for coaches to see their players in real competition.
But: “Unfortunately, the preseason is about two games too long,” Aikman writes. “I believe the evaluation process for the younger players could still take place with a shortened preseason schedule. Besides, these players are working out 12 months a year already. If a coach can’t identify the top players during the amount of time they already have during the offseason preparing their team, then I would argue that two more games isn’t going to help them either. I probably speak for most players when I say two games would be sufficient.”
Amen. Football training camp, like the preseasons in all other sports, was intended for players to sweat themselves back into playing shape after an offseason spent on the party circuit if they were stars or working their other jobs if they were rank and filers. Those days are over, as Aikman points out. Any athlete who doesn’t keep himself in top shape year-round will find himself out of a job pretty quickly.
Every year marquee players are injured in preseason. This year’s poster children are Falcons quarterback Mike Vick, out for six weeks with a broken leg, and Packers lineman Gilbert Brown, likely out for the year with a torn biceps. Both were hurt in the first two games, so reform wouldn’t have helped them, but I don’t think it takes a statistical genius to figure out that a preseason schedule that’s half as long significantly reduces the chances of injuries in — sorry, Troy — meaningless games.
And it should count for something that the length of the preseason bugs the fans. It’s a big world, so somebody’s going to send me an e-mail defending the long preseason, but I’ve never in my life heard anyone take that side of the argument when the subject has come up.
Season-ticket holders are forced to pay full price for the exhibition schedule, usually two home games, which means that a full 20 percent of their annual bill goes for games that mean nothing in the standings and are all but unwatchable after halftime. Check the empty stands in the second half of any preseason game if you don’t believe me. I can tell you from personal experience trying to sell preseason tickets that their actual market value is somewhere in the immediate vicinity of zero.
The NFL should shrink the preseason to two games, even for the teams involved in the annual exercise in Far East merchandise sales known as the American Bowl, and expand the regular season to 18 games. Another e-mail I’m bound to get will be from a Canadian Football League fan pointing out that CFL teams play just that schedule: two exhibition games and an 18-game regular season. While I think Canadian football is more entertaining than American football, I don’t think the NFL needs to be taking marketing advice from the CFL. An NFL spokesman told me there’s been no discussion of shortening the preseason or lengthening the regular season.
But turning two who-cares games into meaningful ones does seem like a win-win situation to me. I believe Aikman that players would welcome a shorter preseason, but if they raise a stink about more real work and more exposure to injury for top players in those two new regular-season games, I’m sure the owners could share some of the extra money they’d make from the expanded TV and radio contracts that would result from a longer regular season, and no doubt the higher ticket prices too.
Those two extra games would also give the league two more chances to weight schedules, to force good teams to play other good teams and let bad teams play other bad ones, for parity’s sake.
As it is, the NFL’s much-vaunted weighted system is a wash, if that. The first- and last-place teams in a division play the same schedule except for four games, the two they play against each other — which is an important and often-overlooked part of the equation — and two of their intraconference games, which are weighted by the previous year’s record.
In other words, the Packers, who went 12-4 and won the NFC North, play the same teams as the Lions, who went 3-13 and finished last, in 12 games. They both play two games against the Vikings and Bears in their own division, plus one game against each of the four teams in both the NFC West and the AFC West. Then the weighting comes in: The Packers finished first in the North, so they play the champs of the other two NFC divisions, the Bucs in the South and the Eagles in the East. The Lions, as the last-place team, play the similarly unsuccessful Cardinals and Cowboys. But that’s more than offset by the fact that the Lions have to face the Packers two times, while the Packers get to play the Lions twice. The Lions have at least as tough a schedule as the Packers do. So much for schedule balance.
Adding two games to the regular-season slate would help that balance. The weak teams could play two more weak teams and, more important, the strong teams would all have two more games against each other. Those are the good games. The players would be playing the same 20 games overall, the season would end at the same time and the fans would be interested for longer, and getting their money’s worth to boot.
And it’s not like 16 games is some kind of sacred schedule length deeply ingrained in the history of the game. There’s ample precedent. The NFL expanded from a 12-game season to 14 games in 1961, and then to 16 in 1978.
Shrinking the preseason to two games and expanding the regular season to 18 is so logical, such a good idea, it won’t ever happen.
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