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The NFL’s Hellmouth Begins Its Devouring

MIAMI, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 02: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell looks on prior to Super Bowl LIV between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs at Hard Rock Stadium on February 02, 2020 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

As expected and even predicted by all living creatures, the National Football League is going to continue its gradual annexation of the calendar by adding a 17th regular-season game. This means roughly six percent more of everything the NFL provides, from fantasy points to betting opportunities, knees injured to concussions hidden, pregame blathering to postgame blathering, stories fawning over Drew Brees on TV to stories centering on Jack Easterby hovering in someone's rafters scaring the children. This, however, does not mean more stories about Tom Brady because we have been at critical mass on those since 2012. As it turns out, amazingly enough, even the internet is finite.

It does mean that when the three preseason games are counted and added to the 18 weeks of the regular season, the four weeks of the postseason and the long-awaited return of the Pro Bowl, there will again be a full 26 weeks of professional football games, which seems like a lot until you remember that the highway is filled with wrecked cars and cow skulls from all the entrepreneurs who thought they should start a new league with new teams and new pastel uniforms and add 14 weeks or so to the process. The NFL, which believes that more is the only thing worth striving for, is now closer to confronting their own three true outcomes:

(1) More players to eat;

(2) More teams in the mix;

(3) More weeks in the year.

As regards (1), hiring more players to cover the increase in injuries means a dilution in quality, but hey, you've seen the Lions, Jets, and Jaguars, so how much worse could it actually get? Plus, worrying about the audience sophistication/inferior play ratio is not what made the NFL the NFL. What made the NFL the NFL was John Madden making five-level Russian dolls out of already delicious birds for holiday gorging: "Try that pterodactyl flambee; it goes great with the peacock and the falcon."

(2) is also a likely nonstarter not because foreign lands wouldn't mind trying our weekly celebration of brightly colored carnage but because more teams means smaller slices of the delicious Bitcoin torte for existing owners. Not even Pro Football Focus's most cocaine-fueled staff meeting can make more than 100 percent of anything, even though the NFL has certainly tried by defining a perfect score in its quarterback rating as 158.3.

But (3)? Here is where the NFL clearly sees the greatest avenue for growth. While the calendar manufacturers are already tooled for 52 weeks and disinclined to change, and while not even Jerry Jones can convince the earth to slow its orbit or speed its rotation, there are still 26 weeks of unused opportunities here. A normal MLB, NBA, or NHL season comes in at around 36 weeks when you include the postseason and in the case of baseball, spring training, and the real model for newfangled American sports ideas, global soccer, plays every day but the two weeks in July when the players all go on holiday and roughly half of them get arrested for fighting the locals.

I mean, if the owners don't want relegation, the true genius of the soccer structure, they'll certainly take the concept of perpetual play until the injuries leave the players washed and crabmeated at age 25, at which point they'll be replaced by new, less damaged candidates. Given the slow decline in youth football, that strategy is likely to fail in time, but by then that'll all be the owners' kids' problems because Dad has either died, been raked in the divorce, been arrested for tax fraud, or bought an island to avoid going to jail for alimony.

Now you may wonder why the NFL owners didn't just go from 26 weeks to 40 in one fell swoop like all the other sports, and you'd be right to do so. An incremental strategy helps in that they deal with a compliant union of lobsters who get put in gigantic vats of cold water that are slowly heated at a real but almost imperceptible rate. The gamble is that the players won't notice they're about to be boiled until it is too late to escape the vat, and even at 17 games some players have already noticed that the kitchen is getting a bit steamier. Not enough to leave the vat en masse, mind you, but enough to give off a momentary complaint and then return because, well, football.

So the NFL does it one week at a time, the way the British Empire was built. Eventually, of course, the British Empire shriveled over time to the size of Greater London, a small hunk of Scotland, all the coal pits in Wales, and Harry and Meagan's home in Montecito, but that won't happen to the NFL. The NFL will run into the richer folks who own global soccer and be eaten itself, or the planet will prolapse under the weight of its own plastic.

But again, that'll be the kids’ problem, and they'll be too worried about gun laws that require rather than discourage ownership of assault rifles, air the consistency of pudding, and COVID-27. Against what awaits them, the 8-32 Dar es Salaam Raiders will barely make a dent.

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