NFL expands to 17-game regular season; what Saints fans need to know

John Sigler
·5 min read

NFL ownership voted on Tuesday to approve a plan adding another week to its regular season, increasing the total number of games played from 256 to 272 — a slate of 17 games per team. That carries serious implications for all involved: the players, coaches and team personnel, and the fans themselves. Here’s what Saints fans need to know.

Who have we got?

Nov 24, 2019; Nashville, TN, USA; Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) autographs his jersey for a jersey exchange with Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette (not pictured) after a Titans win at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL's formula for scheduling the seventeenth regular season game will rotate, with each team playing the same-place finisher from a rotating order of divisions in the opposing conference. In 2021, the AFC will host these games, while the NFC will get their additional home game in 2022, and so on. For the Saints, their extra opponent in 2021 will be the Tennessee Titans. New Orleans last saw them in 2019, steamrolling the Titans 38-28 at Nissan Stadium (without Derrick Henry, the two-time rushing yards champ who was held out as an injury precaution). So it's a quick turnaround to their rematch, which is part of the appeal. Less-common matchups like this one will come around more often. Click here for the full list of 2021 opponents, and here for the former Saints players they'll run across. We won't know the extra opponent for 2022 until next season, but here's the schedule:

  • 2021: Saints at AFC South same-place finisher (Titans)

  • 2022: Saints vs. AFC West same-place finisher (TBA)

  • 2023: Saints at AFC North same-place finisher (TBA)

  • 2024: Saints vs. AFC East same-place finisher (TBA)

What about the salary cap?

Feb 6, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; NFL commissioner Roger Goodell holds a Super Bowl LII logo football at the Houston Super Bowl LI Host Committee Handoff Ceremony at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sportsut

Yeah, this is a more pressing concern to Saints fans than most teams. While the salary cap is expected to skyrocket in 2023 once the new NFL broadcasting rights deals are activated, there will be some lean years in 2021 and 2022 in the meantime. But adding another week of games, bringing in more revenue throughout the league as fans return to stadiums, will do a lot to help balance out the NFL's financial losses from the COVID-19 pandemic. And expect the league to work overtime to make back its lost revenue. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell set a bold goal in a Tuesday conference call, saying: "We want to see every one of our fans back. We expect to have full stadiums in the coming season." How he hopes to accomplish that with multiple regions around the country still reeling from the coronavirus remains to be seen, but increased vaccine use is promising. Several NFL stadiums are functioning as public vaccination sites, which is doing a lot to help. While their books are tight -- they're in order, but the margins are tight -- for 2021, New Orleans is in for a serious challenge next summer. Right now, the Saints have 32 players under contract for 2022, with about $183 million in salary cap commitments. We won't know next year's salary cap for quite some time, and it's possible that it remains flat after the NFL players union negotiated a deal to set a firm spending floor in 2021 while spreading those accounting losses across the next few years. Any additional money the league can bring in through stadium attendance will help that cap number climb, giving the Saints critical breathing room.

When is the bye week?

New Orleans Saints helmets sit on the bench before an NFL preseason football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Well, we won't know that until the NFL releases its schedule in mid-May, after the 2021 draft has wrapped up. But tacking an extra week to the end of the regular season is going to make that a challenge, and add extra value to the bye whenever it comes. If the Saints draw a Week 6 bye as they did in 2020 and 2018, they will end up playing 12 straight games before reaching the playoffs. However, their Week 9 bye in 2019 would mean an unbroken streak of nine games played without a breather. Their Week 5 bye in 2017 and 2016 is even more daunting, though the Week 11 break in 2015 would mean just seven games played after the bye. There isn't much correlation to a team's final record and when they had their bye week, and there are some schools of thought to it. Some prefer a midseason bye so that teams can take the field for their second stretch with fresh legs. Others like an earlier bye to get it out of the way and settle into a routine. And a few radicals hope for a late-season bye to really buckle down and self-scout before the postseason.

How do the players feel about it?

https://twitter.com/A_kamara6/status/1376222776281993219 Reactions across the league are mixed, but some prominent voices in the Saints locker room are, well, less than pleased. Count Alvin Kamara in the camp that's not eager to put his body at greater risk without bringing in more money. Running backs have a brief shelf life in the NFL, even ones as talented as he is. There aren't many positions more punishing to play. So is Cameron Jordan, who said he voted against the new collective bargaining agreement that made this expansion possible last summer. Jordan pointed to the "war of attrition sport" football is known for as injuries mount up, while also suggesting players' legacies and how stats will be reinterpreted in the future after switching from 16 games to 17. Still, while he's accepted this is the new reality, he's far from thrilled about it. https://twitter.com/camjordan94/status/1376209645405016067

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