On the first Saturday of every month, Mark will write about a topic of interest to Packers fans and the organization, and then answer five fan questions. Fans are encouraged to email Mark with their name and hometown at: MurphyTakes5@packers.com.
At their annual meeting on Tuesday, NFL owners voted to expand the regular season from 16 to 17 games. This was not a move that executives from the league office and the clubs took lightly. The potential move had been discussed and planned for several years and was a key part of the negotiations with the NFLPA on a new collective bargaining agreement, as well as with our media partners on the recently announced extensions. The last time the league increased the number of games in the season was 1978, when the number of regular-season games went from 14 to 16. On a side note, I was a rookie in 1977 when there were six preseason and 14 regular-season games. I remember thinking how long the preseason was in 1977 and felt like I'd already played a whole college season. I actually thought the move to 16 games was good for players since it shortened the preseason.
The biggest concern with the expanded season is the potential impact on the health and safety of our players. There is no question there will be more wear and tear on the players' bodies with an extra game (and the reality is very few players played in all preseason and regular games). However, there have been a number of changes in recent years to make practices and games safer for our players. J.C. Tretter, former Packer and current president of the NFLPA, has been at the center of these decisions and recently sent a letter to players reminding them that the NFLPA received substantial benefits and improved working conditions in return for agreeing to the 17-game regular season. According to NFLPA data, this past year NFL players experienced a 23% decrease in time missed with injury, a 30% reduction in concussions, the lowest figures for ACL tears and lower extremity strains in five years, and a 45% decrease in heat-related illnesses. Also, I think both players and management learned a lot from last year's training camp schedule, and will incorporate permanently many of the changes installed last year due to the pandemic. The longer strength and conditioning period and longer ramp-up period resulted in fewer injuries for players during training camp. In addition, under the new schedule, there will be no preseason games the week before the start of the regular season in order to give players time to heal any injuries prior to the start of the season.
Also, in my mind, a big issue has been the poor quality of our preseason games. Over time, fewer and fewer starters are playing in the preseason games, and the games feel more like scrimmages. The games still serve a purpose, though, in giving younger players game experience and allowing general managers to better evaluate players. Trading one preseason game for one regular-season game is a good trade-off that will be a benefit for our fans.
The 17-game schedule provides other benefits to the league. The extra game gives the league more flexibility when it comes to international games (all teams will be required to give up one home game, during a season when they would have had nine home games, over an eight-year period). The new schedule will also have more interconference games (this year the Packers will play at Kansas City) and will provide interesting matchups that will be good for fans.
The new season structure was also important to our television partners. Under the new media agreements, the networks will have more flexibility in scheduling games, to ensure better matchups, which will also benefit fans. In addition, more of the games will be on streaming services which will allow fans who have cut the cord on their cable systems to continue to watch NFL games. Moreover, the new agreements will pay the league significantly more (75%) than the current TV deals, which will benefit both players and owners (under the new CBA, the players will receive a higher percentage of the revenue as well as a kicker for the new media deals). Finally, the length of the media deals and the CBA (both are 11 years) provides the NFL with unprecedented stability.
Now, on to your questions…
Buddy from WI
Mark, I have been a fan of the Packers for over 35 years and as such the NFL. However, in the last 15 years my fandom for the NFL has waned with each passing year. Instead of watching games all day on Sunday, I simply watch the Packers and that's it. My interest level dropping coincides with Roger Goodell taking over. I know that you have a good working relationship with him but many fans, myself included, feel he's done more harm than good to the NFL from a fan and player experience. As someone who played football for 15 years of my life, I can say that some of the rule changes have been good for the game (e.g. the health of the players) but those changes were really forced upon the NFL. However, many of the decisions have been made in direct contrast to player safety. The games overseas, the Thursday night games on a weekly basis and now the 17th regular-season game. Roger and other owners/executives such as yourself have said these decisions were made in interest of the fans, quality of the games and player safety. Those of us who are able to look past all the fluff, political-type statements can quite plainly see these changes are being made with only one thing in mind: the almighty dollar. Now, I fully understand that the NFL is a business and the goal is to increase profits, but at what point do you stop putting money ahead of player safety and health? When I played in my early 30s, I would play a game on a Saturday and I wouldn't feel "normal" again until at least the following Thursday. Now I didn't have millions of dollars to help me rehabilitate all the bumps and bruises, but I take as good of care of my body as a non-millionaire can and the game wasn't at the speed of the NFL. These players take a beating and every week some old player walks out the tunnel of some NFL stadium and is barely able to walk among other issues. Other than money, how can the NFL and people like you, a former player, justify adding a 17th regular-season game, Thursday games regularly and playing games overseas? At some point you need to put the health of the players ahead of money. Sunday night games, Monday Night Football and Thanksgiving Day games used to be special and I looked forward to them...now, they are meaningless games that I don't watch unless the Packers are playing. Heck, the Super Bowl doesn't mean a whole lot either.
Thanks for providing an honest, non-political speak response. Your columns have been enjoyable to read.
Thanks, Buddy. I appreciate your thoughts on this topic – especially from someone who played football for 15 years and into your early 30s. I never played a down in my 30s – Washington cut me on my 30th birthday! I addressed many of your concerns in the column, but I would add a few thoughts. First, I don't know when you played, but the game is significantly different than when I played. We are much smarter now about how to train and practice to keep the players fresh and healthy. George Allen and other coaches from that era viewed training camp as a way to test how players would react when pushed to their limit. We also had two-a-day practices at least five days a week, with a walk-through in the evenings. George also didn't believe in water breaks – but at least the trainers would sneak ice cubes to us! Most teams now only have one practice a day in camp and rarely practice more than three days in a row in pads. In addition, the practices during the regular season have significantly changed over time with only one padded practice a week and less time on the field. I think a big part of our success over the last two years has been that Matt LaFleur is very much in tune with our players' health, and has been willing to adjust our practice schedules to help keep players safe.
With regard to the Thursday games, the league studies have shown that there is not an increase in injuries in Thursday games, although it does certainly give players less time to recover and some players are unable to play who might have been able to play with more rest. The league policy has been that teams will not have more than one short-week game a season. Also, the extra time off after a Thursday game does give players extra time to heal – almost like a mini bye. As a former player for Washington, I thought the Cowboys always hosting a Thanksgiving game gave them a huge advantage going into the end of the season. With regard to the international games, all teams will have a bye after these games if they want. Also, I know that players enjoy playing games in London. Most NFL players were not able to study abroad in college because of their football commitments, so these games provide a great cultural experience for them.
So how come the junior conference got dibs for the first year of No. 17?
It has been many years since I've seen someone refer to the AFC as the junior conference, Notop64. You are showing your age. I don't think there was an official reason given for giving the AFC the home games this year. One factor may have been that the AFC has two teams in new stadiums (the Chargers and Raiders) and neither team had any fans in the stands last year, while the NFC only has one team with a new stadium (the Rams). Regardless, it will even out over eight years with all teams having four home games and four away games. Interestingly, in the ninth year, the NFC North teams will host the AFC West teams to reverse the pattern from the first eight years.
Robert from Saginaw, MI
Mark, does the new exclusive Thursday night TV package on Amazon Prime include the season-opening Thursday night game and the Thanksgiving night games?
Good question, Robert. No, these two games – the NFL Kickoff game on the opening Thursday night and the Thanksgiving night game have always been separate from the league's Thursday night package and will remain so. I believe both of these games will remain on NBC. The partnership with Amazon will be interesting to follow over the course of the media deals. As mentioned above, more and more people are no longer watching traditional television and the league and Amazon saw that they could help each other with this partnership.
A question from Peter
Mr. Murphy: When it is reported that an NFL team has had a virtual meeting, with a potential draftee, it does not mean that they are looking at him as a possible first-round draft choice, rather that they are interested in drafting him somewhere in the draft; am I correct? I will await your response.
With the pandemic, things have obviously been very different the last two years when it comes to the process of evaluating and drafting college players. The Combine is normally a time when teams are able to interview potential draftees in person. Last year, the Combine was held as normal and then things across the League quickly shut down. At the Combine, the League limits the number of interviews, so teams have to make strategic decisions on how best to utilize the interviews. With the virtual interviews, there are no limits to how many players you can interview, but you can't interview any one player more than five times. To answer your question, no, when we interview a player it doesn't necessarily mean that we are interested in him as a first-round pick. Typically, we try to interview players that we think will be available when we are picking throughout the draft. Also, we might use an interview on a player where we may have questions regarding his character and would like to see how he responds to our concerns.
Bob from Colorado
Friends of mine with children have commented on the lack of endless rounds of colds and flu children bring home from school that infect the rest of the family members. We assume the preventive measures taken because of COVID-19 have limited the spread of other diseases too. In the past, the flu and various colds have caused players to miss games. Going forward, do you see the Packers organization continuing many of these COVID-related protocols to protect the team's health?
You raise a good point, Bob. Last year, numerous protocols were put in place by the league to keep our players safe from COVID-19. These protocols also helped stop the spread of other diseases, as you note. (I may be old-school, but I hope none of our players ever miss a game because they have a cold). As we look ahead to our offseason and the start of training camp (and then the preseason and regular season), I anticipate that the protocols will be a topic of negotiations between the league office and the NFLPA. The offseason programs can start on April 19. Again, this will be negotiated, but it will likely start virtually and then transition to in-person practices. For the in-person practices, the protocols from last season will likely remain in place. Obviously, a key going forward will be the vaccinations – not only getting a high percentage of our players vaccinated, but also encouraging a high percentage of people across the country to get vaccinated. We cannot require players to get vaccinated, but will strongly encourage them (as well as all our employees) to do so. Starting on Monday, all Wisconsin residents 16 and over are eligible to get vaccinated. Bellin Health has set up a vaccination site in our Atrium, so it couldn't be easier for our players and employees to get the vaccine. The sooner we get a high percentage (85%) of people vaccinated, we can get back to a sense of normalcy and hopefully have Lambeau Field full in the fall.