The NFL have approved an expanded regular season with 17 games over 18 weeks at the deep end and one fewer pre-season game at the shallow end. That additional 17th game is going to be inter- conference with all the possible excitement and rivalry that brings. As a fan, who would not want more games in a season? As an owner, who would not want more games to sell? As for the players, well, player reactions were mixed and the Collective Bargaining Agreement vote from the National Football League Players Association was touching on 50:50. It is a balancing act but the fulcrum on which this new schedule moves is the ability of sufficient players of sufficient talent to stay healthy enough to play just one more regular season game. This is traded off against one less pre-season game but for me, the additional in-season game is going to carry more hits and have more players pushing their bodies to the limit, and possibly playing hurt.
A few years ago, in conversation with a friend who was a very good wrestler, a multiple All American, Olympic Alternate good wrester, I asked him if he ever thought back on his competition days. “Sure Richard” he replied, “every time I try to get out of bed in the morning.” That is the reality. Our players are paid very large amounts of money for a short career that will likely leave them with lasting injuries. There is almost always a price to be paid later in life for present excellence in contact sports. That is an undeniable part of the appeal of the game.
We watch exceptional athletes operating at the limits of their strength and endurance and we know the risks they take. I’m not saying that the situation for players has not improved in recent years. We have the concussion protocol in the wake of the discovery of CTE and that is definitely a good thing. The Chiefs have world class physiotherapy facilities to get players back to playing as soon as possible. Sports Medicine is a growing field of expertise and injuries that would have been career ending 20 years ago are now being overcome.
The walking wounded will always be with us though and they are not always easy to see. I have always found it interesting how many “Player X was carrying an injury for most of the season” stories come out after the season ends. The brutal truth is that playing in the NFL includes an expectation that you will play through injuries if at all possible, regardless of the consequences.
What might this new longer season hold for us? Its a roll of the dice. The deeper into the season a team gets, the more players are out injured or playing hurt. In 2019 we mostly rolled double sixes. The Mahomes knee magically popping back into place without massive tissue damage was a lucky escape. I don’t think anybody expected him back so quickly when that awful video started coming in from Mile High. Kelce’s knee holding up through the post season was not far behind. This season however, we rolled snake eyes over and over again. Come the end of the season we had been ravaged by injury. Looking only at the offense, Mahomes had his troublesome toe and at the very time that he needed an O-Line to hold back the tide of Buccaneers, Mike Remmers, Mitchell Schwartz, Andrew Wylie, Kelechi Osemele, and Eric Fisher were all either hurt too badly to play or just plain hurt. A fully effective running game might have helped but; Le’Veon Bell, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and Darwin Thompson rounded off our tale of offensive woe, all utterly or somewhat banged up.
I have my fingers crossed that this season we stay healthy enough to make the playoffs, and that the lower reaches of the depth chart enjoy a quiet year of limited contact practice and occasional snaps. I look forward to that extra game and I won’t miss that relatively meaningless pre-season game. This season the Chiefs are getting an additional home game against the Packers. I would love to see a duel between Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers with everything on the line, but it might just end up with Chad Henne vs. Jordan Love and nothing much to play for. I will still watch it though.
Even as I watch, part of me will be wondering if there are coaches and even owners out there looking at some worryingly shallow depth charts and thinking…well, was this all worth it?