The 2021 NFL campaign will feature 17 games over 18 weeks — whether it’s the best thing for the players (and the fans) or not.
One year ago, the National Football League’s new collective bargaining agreement passed with just 51.5% of the final vote following some serious, high-stakes debate between owners and players.
Though its most immediate change included broadening the playoff field with one extra Wild Card team per league, the NFLPA raised its loudest objections over a separate item: an option for the owners to expand the regular season from 16 games to 17, which Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers protested as “never something to be negotiated.”
Well, AR12 ended up on the losing side. The controversial CBA was adopted, and it’s now official that the 2021 NFL regular season will include 17 games played out over 18 grueling weeks.
Just like Rodgers a year ago, Saints running back Alvin Kamara is far from alone in pushing back colorfully against the change. As it stands, 16 games are more than enough to ransack even an All-Pro athlete physically; Titans running back Derrick Henry is an absolute truck of a man and still only played 66% of available snaps last year.
And this says nothing of an expanded playoff setup that denies a long-guaranteed first-round bye to each conference’s No. 2 seed.
“As everybody knows, the 16-game season is already grueling enough on the body,” Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson said last year via the Chicago Tribune. “It becomes a long year.”
A long year that will require one half of the league to play more road games than home games for the first time ever.
For more profound reasons than merely a new CBA, the strain placed on NFL players in 2020 was far beyond that of 2019. Now, adding the additional regular season contest without also adding, say, an additional bye week — to say nothing of guaranteeing every player an additional chunk of salary — feels like a step backward from the standpoints of health, labor, and athlete empowerment.
In March, the NFL announced a new deal with its TV partners worth an incredible $113 billion over 11 years, promising a noticeable jump in revenue once the biggest changes kick in starting in 2023, as ESPN notes. The players’ split of league revenues won’t be less than 48% in 2021 now that the regular season has expanded, but the owners are still guaranteed the larger piece of the pie regardless.
And one crucial detail makes the whole thing that much more frustrating for the NFLPA.
It would make sense that each player would now earn one additional game check under the terms of the new deal, but that’s not what’s actually happening. It was widely reported in February that players would receive an extra 1/17th of their annual base salary at the end of the season — but this sum is capped at a maximum of $250,000.
For reference, 1/17th of Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s 2021 base salary is $1.44 million.
As an added frustration, the idea of a “game check” might not have any meaning to it all anymore. Salary payments will now be made over the course of a 36-week schedule rather than the previous standard of 17.
It’s obviously not just the star-level wage-earners who are hurt by this, but the setbacks don’t even stop there for those on the low end of the pay spectrum: NFL players making the league’s minimum salary for their level of service time are not eligible to receive the additional 1/17th payment at all.
With all this in mind, credit Chicago Bears owner George McCaskey for being the only one among his peers to note these shortcomings and vote accordingly.
Let’s play this out further. The number 17 is a bit awkward, right? What’s to stop the league from going to 18 games in 19 weeks by the time the next CBA rolls around? Television money makes the entire sports world go, after all. The league’s broadcast and streaming partners aren’t about to say no to an even bigger piece of the largesse if (when!) it’s put on the table.
To be fair, however, it’s hard to call the expansion something as simple as a cash grab given that the consumer demand for football is utterly massive and year-round. The rank-and-file of NFL fans are not exactly complaining about living in a world with a Week 18.
But even setting aside the obvious pitfalls these changes present for players, we can’t undersell that football fans could also be among those negatively affected.
Didn’t like that ankle and shoulder issues held Christian McCaffrey out of all but three games in 2020? The greater risk of wear and tear in 2021 and beyond, which stands to affect running backs with unique severity, only increases the chance that the fans in Charlotte might pay big bucks to see a game in which CMC gets DNP-rested Gregg Popovich-style.
A player’s relationship with his team is professional, but fandom is emotional. It’s a certain type of religious love. If snap count limits and strategic benchings in the interest of player recovery become breakout trends in the 17-game era, fans might just be the ones with the most to lose.
And there will be no going back to the way things were.
One day, the NFLPA and its members may enjoy a kind of influence on how the league operates that resembles what NBA players have now. That’s not quite the world we live in. All we can do in the meantime is hope that 16 wasn’t a magic number.