After weeks of speculation, the NFL has made it official: The 16-game regular season is dead, long live the 17-game format!
The league’s owners approved the move in a virtual meeting on Tuesday, voting to implement the plans for the upcoming 2021 season. While adding another game to the season seems like a pretty straight-forward decision, the fallout is massive beyond the regular season — from the Super Bowl, to the preseason, to the salary cap.
So, let’s explain it all through a New England Patriots lens.
Why did the NFL scrap the 16-game format?
The short answer: Money.
The long answer: The league’s ownership pushed for an additional regular season game during negotiations for the new NFL-NFLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement in order to capitalize on pro football’s popularity. There were some caveats, though.
For one, the NFL had to make concessions when it came to the players’ revenue share, benefits and minimum salaries embedded into the CBA. The league also tied the move to two other factors, namely the reduction of preseason games and new broadcast deals being signed. With the latter taking place two weeks ago the road was cleared for the 17-game season.
How does the move impact the schedule?
With a 17th game being added, the league had to adjust its scheduling format. Instead of the one we all have gotten used to since the league’s expansion and re-alignment in 2002, another layer has been added: an extra game between the two conferences.
For 2021, those games will be scheduled based on the inter-conference games played in 2019 and the standings following the 2020 season:
- AFC East versus NFC East
- AFC North versus NFC West
- AFC South versus NFC South
- AFC West versus NFC North
As a result of this, the third-ranked Patriots will take on their NFC East counterpart, the Dallas Cowboys. The game will take place at Gillette Stadium, with the AFC’s 16 teams determined as the hosts for the extra contest this season. Next year, the AFC clubs will have to travel for the 17th game with the NFC squads playing hosts.
If the rotation schedule is kept in place, New England will travel to play against an NFC West team in 2022.
With the Patriots and the rest of the AFC being scheduled to play nine home games versus eight road contests, the NFL decided that the preseason schedule would be changed as well: AFC teams will host just one preseason game in 2021, while NFC teams will host two. The plan is not to have teams play more than a combined 10 home games between the new-look preseason and regular season.
The new-look scheduling also impacts the Super Bowl. While it usually took place on the first Sunday in February, the extra week being added to the regular season pushes the entire playoff tournament back one week. As a result, the next title game will take place on February 13, 2022.
What about the preseason?
Going back to the preseason, we see that the four-game exhibition schedule is no more. Article 31, Paragraph (a) of the CBA requires the league to keep only three preseason games in case a 17th regular season contest is added:
The League and/or Clubs shall have the discretion to increase the number of regular season games per Club from sixteen (16) to seventeen (17) (but not more), provided that the combined total of preseason and regular season games played per Club shall not exceed twenty (20) games.
As for the Patriots, they will play three preseason contests moving forward. In 2021, one of those will take place at Gillette Stadium; in 2022 that number will jump to two. As noted above, the idea is not to have a team play more than 10 home games per (non-playoff) season.
The preseason will be shortened in the future, and end one week earlier than usual. As a result, teams will have a de facto bye between their final exhibition games and regular season openers.
Will there be an extra bye week?
No. The NFL justifies adding a 17th regular season game but no second bye by taking away one preseason contest. In total, teams will play no more than 20 games between preseason and regular season — same as before.
Obviously, though, an extra regular season game cannot be compared to a preseason contest: unless the game script dictates something else starters will play the entirety of a regular season contest, while they will hardly play into the third quarter during your average preseason game (if that). Comparing a preseason and a regular season game cannot accurately be done.
What does it mean for a team’s salary cap?
Regular season length plays a pivotal role in players contracts, with salaries and per-game roster bonuses being calculated based on it. With the season now 18 instead of 17 games, all that will be impacted as well.
The CBA has to say the following about this:
In any League Year in which the League and/or Clubs elect to increase the number of regular season games per Club to seventeen (17), the following amendments ... shall automatically become effective on the first day of such League Year: any references to Salary: (i) earned or paid over sixteen (16) games shall be modified to be earned or paid over seventeen (17) games; (ii) earned or paid over seventeen (17) weeks shall be modified to be earned or paid over eighteen (18) weeks; or (iii) earned or paid over thirty-four (34) weeks shall be modified to be earned or paid over thirty-six (36) weeks. In addition, any reference to Salary that is expressed as a fraction having the number seventeen as its denominator (e.g., 1/17th, 15/17ths, etc.) shall be modified to have the number 18 as its denominator (e.g., 1/18th, 15/18ths, etc.).
What does all of this mean for the Patriots? That they gained almost $700,000 in salary cap space with the league moving to 17 regular season games.
After all, they have 24 players currently under contract who have active roster bonuses as part of their respective deals but did not play all 16 games in 2020. As a result, their cap impact slightly changed as Miguel Benzan explained over the weekend:
Typical language in a Patriots contract says players will be eligible to receive X number of dollars during each of the 2020 and 2021 League Years. Let’s use 510K for X. 16 games means $31,875 per active game. 17 games mean 30K per active game. That small difference added up.
Could an 18-game regular season be on the horizon as well?
Let’s revisit the aforementioned Article 31, Paragraph (a) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed last year. It specifies that the number of regular season games cannot be increased for the duration of that labor deal:
The League and/or Clubs shall not increase the number of regular season games per Club to eighteen (18) or more games.
If the NFL wants to get back to an even number of games — possibly by moving preseason to two games — it will either have to amend the CBA in agreement with the NFLPA, or wait until the current deal is up after the 2030 season. For the time being, however, 17 games is the maximum.
Will Patriots season ticket members have to pay more?
No. According to ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss, the Patriots will not increase the current 10-game pricing for season tickets. Basically speaking, season ticket holders just traded one preseason game for an additional regular season contest at the same cost.
Do you like the NFL’s decision to move to a 17-game regular season?
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