It seems pretty much inevitable that the NFL is going to go to an 18-game schedule soon - perhaps as soon as 2012. The Commissioner is committed to it, the owners couldn’t be more in favor of it, and the Collective Bargaining Agreement allows for it, so there is no real impediment to making it happen - regardless of what the players might think. The change is going to have a big impact on things for bettors - or at least that’s how it seems right now. Here is a look at some of the pluses and the minuses of the change from the betting perspective:
Fewer preseason games - I hate the NFL Preseason more than anything else in sports, so cutting the number of games in half is almost entirely a positive thing. Preseason games are harder to get interested in and to handicap because of the uncertainty about the playing time of starters and the effort they will bring to the field. Replacing two preseason games with two regular season games inevitably means more attractive betting opportunities.
More meaningful games in the regular season - More regular season games means that there will likely be more games in which a team hasn’t either been eliminated from the postseason or has already clinched a playoff spot. That means that there will be more games in which both teams give full effort. Anything less than full effort is wildly frustrating for NFL handicappers.
Expanded roster - The additional games would likely lead to the expansion of the rosters by three or four players. That’s designed to make up for the inevitable injuries that will happen, but it will also allow coaches to be a bit more creative because they can keep players around that they aren’t able to now. This could allow aggressive coaches to implement some interesting ideas, and that’s always a good thing for bettors who are sharp enough to notice what’s going on.
No lockout -There seems to be a good sense that 18 games is the best chance the league has of avoiding a lockout. It’s going to make the financial picture better for owners, and if players can accept it without a fight then they may get another concession or two that will make them happy. A lockout would be horrible for the sport, so anything that might avoid one is obviously a good thing.
Injuries - The rule of thumb is that there are about 2.5 injuries per game per team. Two more games means five more injuries. Any injury causes a bit of a headache for bettors, so more injuries can lead to more headaches. More games also gives more opportunities for star players to get hurt, and those big name injuries are particularly tough for bettors to decode.
Year-to-year stats - In the first couple of years after the transition year-to-year stats will be very hard to compare. Now we know that a running back who gains 1,000 yards is competent, a QB who passes for 3,000 yards is competent, and so on. An extra two games will cause that to change, and not just because players play two more games to add to their stats. The extra two games will likely also force coaches to change their strategy, and not in ways we can necessarily predict until we see it happen. Predicting what could happen based on what has happened in the past is a big part of handicapping, and that will be tougher to do.
Less time for new coaches to establish themselves - When a new coach is trying to get comfortable in his surroundings, and especially when he brings new approaches and new schemes, then the preseason is a valuable time to allow players to adjust to the new systems in game conditions. Two fewer games to do so means that some new coaches won’t be as ready as they would like to be when the season starts, and could give established coaches more of an edge in the first game or two of the season.
Less balanced schedule - The NFL schedule really is a thing of beauty. It’s set up so that each team plays four games against teams that finished first in their division last year, and four games each against teams that finished second, third, and fourth. It’s the most pleasingly balanced of any sport. Eighteen isn’t as easy a number to work with than 16, so the schedule will inevitably be less balanced than it is.
The Bottom Line
16-game schedule isn’t sacred - Opponents of the change seem to think that changing the number of games is like trying to change the colors of the American flag. It’s important to remember, though, that it’s not like 16 games is steeped in history and tradition. It wasn’t long ago that teams only played 14 games, and 12 before that. There have been changes in the past and the sport has managed to survive them. It’s quite possible that the league will survive this change as well.
CFL players survive - Even though I am a Canadian - or perhaps especially because I am a Canadian - I am fully aware of how different the CFL is in every way from the NFL. Still, to an extent at least, football is football. The CFL plays 18 games in the regular season, and they have for a while now. It works, and it’s not nearly as apocalyptic as opponents of the schedule expansion seem to think it would be. The CFL is proof that things could work out in the NFL.
People will overreact - I mention this one here because it’s true in pretty much every change that is made in any major sport. There will be an impact of the change, but that impact won’t be as big or dramatic as the public will think that it is. Those that can keep their heads should be able to find some value.