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The Three Most Fascinating Implications of the NFL’s Best Horrible Proposal Yet

A report suggests that the league is looking into an 18-game regular season in which individual players can play only 16 games. It’s an objectively awful idea … that’s also kind of fun.

Ringer illustration

I have so much respect for the guys in the NFL’s Bad Ideas Department. They do some of the finest work in the entire bad ideas industry. With the NFL constantly beset by valid criticisms of its overwritten rule book, its gotta-please-both-sides social agenda, and its whistling ignorance of the concussion crisis, the Bad Ideas Department is perpetually brainstorming solutions to problems nobody thinks the NFL has.

Last week, the BID put forth its masterpiece. The league has long pushed to extend the regular season to 18 games, even though its current 16-game length isn’t on the list of pressing football problems for most people. The reason is that more games would bring in more money, and the NFL has proved that it will do whatever it takes to make an extra buck. This push has met reasoned resistance from the players, who put their bodies at risk to make money for the league. So the BID came up with something outside of the box: According to Andrew Beaton of The Wall Street Journal, the NFL is prepared to propose an 18-game season in which each player is allowed to play only 16 games, assuaging safety concerns about the toll of the longer season on players’ bodies.

This is an objectively terrible idea. There is no justification for it other than enabling owners to enrich themselves by diluting their product. You take 16 kilos of the pure uncut NFL, chop it up with some Bortles and Glennon, and boom! You can sell 18. The NFL wants to add games by making load management mandatory. This idea is so bad that I suspect it isn’t a serious proposal and is rather a distraction that owners will bring to the bargaining table so that their less dumb ideas will seem like compromises when they’re hashing out the new CBA with the NFL Players Association.

Regardless, NFL Twitter spent much of this weekend pointing out the proposal’s countless logical and logistical flaws. Would teams be willing to risk playing their starting quarterbacks behind backup offensive lines, or would they bench their entire first-string offensive units at once? Would teams roster multiple kickers, punters, and long snappers for the two weeks each season when they’d be obligated to play a backup? Why would the league screw over the television networks that provide most of its cash flow by leaving them with marquee games in which star players sit? Why would the NFL needlessly complicate the nature of fantasy football and gambling, two institutions that drive millions of fans to watch games every week?

And of course, there’s the big question: How could anybody accept games that affect the league’s competitive integrity? NFL teams already play games in which most starters sit—they’re called preseason games, and they don’t factor into the standings. This proposal would take two of those games and make them meaningful. All of a sudden, NFL fans would need to pay rapt attention to games intended to provide rest for stars. Who wants to watch subpar players deciding teams’ seasons?

Unfortunately, I do. I am sick, and the thing that excites me most in the world is truly horrendous football. If pressed to discuss my three defining football-watching experiences since becoming a professional writer, I would go with Michigan’s 78-0 win against Rutgers in 2016, the time that Bills quarterback Nathan Peterman threw five interceptions in one half against the Chargers in 2017 while Buffalo fought for its first playoff berth in almost 20 years, and the time the Cardinals started Ryan Lindley in an NFL postseason game in 2015. There is something absolutely breathtaking about watching supposedly important football games being hijacked by incompetent players. I live for this garbage.

While I cannot in any way endorse the NFL actually adopting this proposal, the implementation of it would be a massive breakthrough for fans of egregiously awful football like me. The logical part of my brain is glad that this poorly conceived cash grab by the owners will never amount to anything more than a thought experiment. The depraved part, however, is obsessed with considering the hideous possibilities of a world where subpar football is mandatory. Let’s break down three of them.

The Dawn of the Backup Quarterback

Quarterback is the most important position in football, as the lack of a competent one can derail a team’s chances of success. Quarterback is also a position where only one player takes the field at a given time, and is the only position where a player will conceivably play more than 99 percent of his team’s offensive snaps. (Five quarterbacks did it last year, and half of the league’s 32 teams managed to start the same QB for all 16 regular-season games.) Backup QBs are insurance policies, not part of the week-to-week game plan.

This BID proposal would change that. Having an 18-game schedule with a 16-game playing limit would force every team to give meaningful reps to backup quarterbacks. Last season 54 QBs started games in the NFL; this rule would mandate that at least 64 quarterbacks receive starts. That uptick would be amazing, because watching backup quarterbacks play in the NFL is hilarious. Sure, every once in a while a backup will make it clear that he should actually be starting. More often than not, though, awful things happen when a second-string player takes the reins of an offense.

Think about all the players who would be asked to lead NFL offenses in this brave, stupid new world: the busts, the passers who long ago proved to be incompetent, the guys whose names you thought you’d never hear again. We’d see coaches hand the keys to 37-year-olds hanging on as mentors for young quarterbacks, fourth-round rookies whose last meaningful action came in the Bad Boy Motors Gasparilla Bowl, projects who would fall apart instantly if thrown into a game against pro defenses, guys who made the team because they’re golfing buddies with the offensive coordinator.

Look at the players currently listed as NFL backups. There’s Paxton Lynch, who got cut two years after being drafted in the first round! Tom Savage, who once lost a QB battle to Brock Osweiler! Tanner Lee, last seen going 4-8 as Nebraska’s starting quarterback! Chase Daniel, who is in his 10th year in the league and has started only four games! The NFL would force these guys to play!

I want to watch these guys play football, because I’m pretty sure some of them do not want to play football. They’ve got this really sweet gig lined up in which they make $2.7 million to do basically nothing, and if they play in a game and throw four interceptions, then the whole jig is up. This is our last chance to watch Nathan Peterman play NFL games that matter.

The Strategy of Disrespect

If this BID proposal were enacted, the biggest question would be how teams would decide to ration their players’ two mandatory missed games. Would they sprinkle absences for key players throughout the season (by benching the starting quarterback one week, benching the go-to receiver the next week, benching the best pass rusher the week after that, etc.) to maintain a relatively competitive squad? Or would they bench large swaths of their starters all at once in hopes of limiting the effects of the rule to two weeks? Would they choose to have players skip long road trips to the opposite coast or to London? One thing is certain: Give NFL coaches the option to screw something up, and they will invent dozens of novel ways to do so.

I suspect some teams would treat games against the league’s worst teams as opportunities to rest players while still hoping to eke out a win, adding a new level of intrigue to lopsided matchups. These games would go one of two ways, and in my opinion, both are hilarious. The first is that quality teams would manage to beat awful ones despite resting their starters. Can you imagine the humiliation? It’s one thing to lose to a team playing its backup quarterback; it’s another entirely to lose to a team that played its backup QB because its coaches didn’t think your defense was good enough to stop him. It might be funnier, though, to see teams miss the playoffs because they blew a game against a 2-10 team by leaving it up to their backups.

The Tragedies of Week 18

If I were an NFL head coach in a world where this BID proposal passed, I wouldn’t even bother strategizing about when to bench my best players. I’d just play my best available talent every game, for as long as I possibly could. Most guys would miss a few games anyway. Last year the average NFL team lost 78 player games due to injury. Only 676 players appeared in all 16 games last season—about 21 per team, less than half of each franchise’s active game-day roster. Even without accounting for the 16-game limit, a decent number of my team’s best players would still be available to play weeks 17 and 18 after missing earlier games due to injury.

A lucky team would get 16 full games out of its best players. It would win games against the squads whose top players got hurt, and those teams that chose to bench their stars early in the year. And it’d be in the thick of the playoff picture heading into the final two games of the season. It’s not a coincidence that most of the teams that ranked among the top 10 in injury luck in 2018 also made the postseason.

But if that team hadn’t clinched its playoff berth by Week 17, that lucky team would suddenly seem unlucky. Having managed to run the gantlet of 16 consecutive games without significant injury concerns, this team would now be obligated to trot out a B-team. Its postseason hopes could rest on the performance of backups who may not have played much since the preseason. Imagine one of these JV teams going up against an opponent whose All-Pro defensive end missed a couple of games early in the season and was eager to feast on a backup left tackle protecting a rookie QB who hadn’t started a game since college. Ay, pobrecitos.

It’s not so ridiculous to imagine a world where backups play the final weeks of the NFL regular season. That already happens to a certain extent in Week 17, in games featuring teams that have been eliminated from the postseason and those resting their best players for the playoffs. In this world, however, these would be meaningful games decided largely by unworthy participants.

Everyone would hate this. Star players would hate watching from the sideline as backups decided their playoff fate. Networks would curse critical matchups decided by no-names. Fans would experience the weirdness of spending all year living and dying with one set of players, then suddenly hoping for a different set of guys to miraculously step up.

And I’d find it all incredible. Yeah, it would be cool to watch the rare occasions when the backups pulled out a victory to save their team’s season. But more often we would witness the breathtaking savagery of relatively competent NFL rosters teeing off on unready players. We’d witness a squad that belonged in the postseason getting stomped 49-10 with its season on the line because none of its best players were eligible to suit up; an organization’s hopes and dreams crushed by a half-baked technicality. There would be a line from city hall to the suburbs to kick the coach’s ass for having the gall to fail to account for the limit in the first 16 games. Everyone would hate the realities caused by the NFL’s best horrible idea to date—everyone, that is, except for sadistic football weirdos like me.