After tuning into the XFL over the weekend, my initial reaction is this is probably the best attempt yet at establishing a new professional football league in the U.S. The rule changes and presentation all worked -- some of it, like the kickoff, the NFL should strongly consider "borrowing" -- and the TV deal will keep the games on prominent networks at least for this year.
There was only one problem, but it was a biggie: I didn't know or have any sort of emotional attachment to 98% of the players on the field, so inevitably I wound up turning the channel because... who cares? By Sunday, I already stopped seeking out the games.
It felt like a predictable win for the NFL. The XFL has a slim shot at carving out a niche, but is nowhere near anything resembling competition.
Provided the NFL's talent pool doesn't come to one day resemble the XFL's.
As it turns out, the XFL isn't a rival, nor a minor league, nor anything in between. It's the NFL's dystopian future, one the 100-year-old league could be accelerating toward if its bid to implement a 17-game season is successful.
Sound extreme? Look no further than the 2018 and 2019 Eagles for evidence. This is a legitimate concern.
Just to make sure everybody is up to speed, the NFL and its players union are currently negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. Reportedly, the major hang-up is the league's insistence on adding a 17th game to the schedule -- a reduction from previous attempts to jump to 18, but a tall ask. There's also been some discussion about altering the playoff format to allow two more teams.
The NFL's position is simple enough: more games equals more revenue. The players' position is the added profit isn't worth the toll a longer season will take on their bodies.
Meanwhile, few fans are clamoring for an expanded schedule. In fact, one recent poll shows nearly two-thirds are opposed. There is a strong desire for a reduction to the preseason, but only to owners charging full ticket prices for glorified scrimmages does that equate to a demand for more regular season games or an expanded playoff field.
How many players that suited up for the Eagles in 2019 would otherwise be on XFL rosters right now?
Ever year, numerous star players fall victim to injury. Comes with the territory. Still, it hurts the quality of the game when in any given season something like half the league's starting quarterbacks miss time -- and that's just the most prominent position on the field. Many, many more will go down, some with non-contact injuries in training camp before so much as a preseason kickoff, others through attrition over the course of 17 weeks plus playoffs.
As the Eagles can attest, some teams get bit worse than others. In the last two seasons, a whopping eight Pro Bowlers suffered significant injuries on the offense alone: Carson Wentz, Jordan Howard, Darren Sproles, Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Jason Peters, Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson. On defense, Fletcher Cox, Malik Jackson, Tim Jernigan, Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Nigel Bradham, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, Cre'Von LeBlanc, and Rodney McLeod all went under the knife at some point -- an entire unit's worth.
Look at some of the names that appeared in their place in 2019. A couple panned out, like Boston Scott and Greg Ward. Most were completely forgettable, like Robert Davis, Deontay Burnett, and Albert Huggins.
Few fans, if any, stopped watching, especially when the team came together and went on a run. But ask yourself: would as many people continue watching the Eagles religiously if that was the product the team put on the field every year? What if that was the caliber product most of the league was putting out there?
Surely, there would be some decline in interest if the entire NFL were this unrecognizable from year to year.
No, the NFL isn't going to shutter and die simply because there are more games. People have been predicting the league's demise for decades. If the concussion scandal couldn't even put a dent in the sport's popularity, giving fans more of the thing they love certainly isn't in itself going to destroy the spot.
What the league should be concerned about is the impact adding games will have on its stars and how, over time, that will impact viewership.
Not could. Will.
More games means more injuries. More injuries means more backups and practice squad players under center and all over the place. More fringe talents means more ugly, hard-to-watch football. Add the rise in athletes choosing to retire when they still have years left, or in some cases, are right in the thick of their prime, and consider the likelihood more will follow as the demands on their body increase, further reducing the number of stars and name players over time. And consider how fewer youths are playing the sport today, which means there will be be less up-and-coming talent in the pipeline altogether.
Maybe the NFL, because it is an institution, will withstand this for a period. Maybe being an Eagles fan trumps whether or not the players and sport are as good as they used to be. Maybe it only makes fantasy football more interesting to guess which unknowns will break out. Maybe there are so many great athletes trying to make careers in football, the league will create new stars simply by virtue of their being on the gridiron. All plausible.
Also plausible is when the NFL reaches a point where it's reliant on XFL-caliber talent, the league will need XFL-style gimmicks like the three-point conversion to hold casual fans' interest.
I don't like the thought of a 17- or 18-game season or expanding the playoffs for a number of reasons. I don't like that it's bad for player safety, which will increasingly drain a shrinking talent pool. I don't like that it will devalue every other regular season game ever so slightly. I don't like the way it will end the symmetry of the current scheduling system -- two games against division opponents, one against each team from an AFC division and an NFC division, one each against the remaining conference opponents based on corresponding division ranking. I don't like adding teams to the postseason, making it easier to get in and cheapening the whole thing. I don't like changing the current playoff format with its bye weeks for the four top teams.
And don't kid yourself. It's 17 games this collective bargaining agreement. It will be 18 the next. It's two more playoff teams this CBA, then two more the next, increasing the field to 16. All of this on the table -- an inevitability, really, if the players agree to more now.
I'm for commonsense solutions here. I think if the NFL wants to add football, a much more reasonable approach is to keep the same number of games, but add an extra week to the schedule and give each team two byes. Hell, start a Tuesday Night Football slate if more TV money is that important.
More games will only hurt the sport, if not right away, certainly over the long haul. Surely, the owners know that too, but see the time as now for a cash grab, with the league's popularity as high as ever, a strong economy and both of those situations likely to change before the next CBA negotiations.
Chances are they'll get their 17 games too, because we'll all tune in to every one of them. But after watching the Eagles field a practice squad as their roster this season and struggle to keep a franchise quarterback healthy, I don't find it hard to believe the drop-off in the NFL's quality will become noticeable before too long.