Wednesday, October 13, 2010

How 18 Games Could Change the Game

The "Enhanced Season" is all the rage in the NFL owner circles as they see the large increase in revenue associated with 2 more games and think that is the kind of enhancement they like. As a football fan, two more glorious Sundays of NFL action sounds pretty good to me too. The players have a rather obvious and valid objection to this lengthening of the season though; they are more likely to get injured in an 18 game season than a 16 game season. If we can assume though that players and owners can come to an agreement so that the players feel fairly compensated for the added risk of injury, the issue then shifts to the effect that a longer season would have on the product that is put on the field every week.

The first pass answer is that the product will suffer, because the inevitable increase in injuries will cost teams more missed games by their best players which means more Sundays watching Todd Collins going toe to toe with Jimmy Clausen and frankly, I'm not sure how much more of that modern quarterbacking can handle. This assumes though that teams will not change they way they build rosters and play the game with this shift in the season.

While not all teams will change immediately, I find it hard to believe that GMs and Coaches will not be able to take this fundamental change to the game (more player games lost due to injury) into account when building rosters and playbooks. The question then is not if the product on the field changes, but how it changes. I put my normally data obssessed brain to work on this issue and tried to think through what changes we might see in player personeel and strategy as the league enhances their season. The biggest shift I could come up with was the use of QBs and the type of QB that would be in demand.

Specifically I see more use of the "3rd down specialist" QBs - Do you remember the tail end of Ron Jaworski's career as it conincided with the beginning of Randall Cunningham's? The Eagles dabbled with platooning this QBs so that Cunningham played in certain situations, so that he gained experience in certain limited situations. He was a rookie so he couldn't master the entire playbook, but he could get up to speed on a portion of it, so when they needed to run a play of the type that Cunningham knew, he could go in a run it.

The Eagles did this because they knew that Jaws was soon to be done and they needed to see if the exciting but inexperience Cunningham could develop into a true NFL QB. Teams may like to go more to this model, not just for developmental purposes, but so that there is a built in reason for them to have two QBs taking significant reps during the practice week. Teams will not have pure backup QBs, more QB 1a and QB 1b who more or less split up the practice reps and are both used (while healthy) during the game.

This could take the shape of the "3rd down specialist" ala Cunningham, or it could become more like the baseball model with relievers/closers that come in and either manage a game that their team is winning or start bombing away if their team is losing.

This kind of shift in the perspective of the role of the QB gives coaches significantly more flexibility to set up game plans to maximize the talents of two different types of QBs, forcing defenses to be prepared for both Kolb and Vick or both Young and Montana. In order to get the most out of this shift, then, teams would want their 1b QB to actually be as different as possible from the 1a QB. Pur passing QBs would be paired with non-traditional running QBs, and those running QBs would no longer be taught stop running and look to throw, but to look for those running lanes. There would be less interest in teaching the running QBs to be traditional because teams would not be dependent on one QB whose injury could undermine an entire season. If one of the QBs goes down, you still have someone who is essentially a starting QB - they will just now have to play the entire game.

If this scenario plays out, does it enhance the product? Does the longer season actually create a more engaging product or just more of the same (or more of something that is lesser than it currently is)? I would argue that this could actually be a renaissance in offensive football, forcing/allowing coaches to be more creative and flexible and trying to do things on the field that have not been done previously.

So this little brain exercise has left me hoping that the season is lengthen because it may truly enhance the product.

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