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2021 NFL Preview: Are You Ready For More Football?

NFL logo on field

The NFL embarks on a new 17-game regular season

The ongoing tech revolution is impacting the NFL in the form of wearable tracking technology that delivers scads of practice-day data to NFL coaching staffs. Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, for instance, says he meets every day with strength and conditioning coaches and athletic trainers to parse this data, trying to assess who might have had too much time on his legs and who needs a nudge to jack up his effort.

“We talk about loads and intensity, speeds, distance over a given period of time,” Flores says. “We can gauge and forecast where there may be some problem areas. We use that data.

“As a staff, you have to use your eyes, too — what you are seeing on a day-to-day basis. Coaching instinct, call it.”

Tech and that coaching instinct will become even more vital to teams in 2021 as coaches and front offices wrestle with a new question: What does load management look like with an extra game on the schedule? Will a player like Saquon Barkley, coming back from a torn ACL, see his touches affected?

The NFL, which hadn’t changed its schedule since 1978 when it went from 14 to 16 games, will play 17 regular-season games this year for the first time ever. It’s a big deal to the league — commissioner Roger Goodell called it “a monumental moment in NFL history” when the change was announced.

Now come the challenges, including the demands of an extra week of game speed and all its potential reverberations of risk. Will teams seek to save snaps to rest key players with a Week 18 looming? With expanded playoffs already in play thanks to 2020’s extra wild card, more teams could be in the hunt later in the season, adding urgency. And adding chances for teams to outthink each other.

The ones that figure out how to best handle it all just might enhance their chances of reaching SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, the site of Super Bowl LVI. Which, thanks to the added game, has been pushed back to Feb. 13, 2022, making it the latest Super Bowl in history.

“Are we going to get like the NBA?” wonders Brian Billick, the NFL Network analyst who won Super Bowl XXXV as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. “We already have teams sitting players if they’ve clinched. You’ve now extended the number of games you have to think about that.”

Coaches may try to save snaps here or there, but it seems unlikely that a superstar such as Tom Brady would sit out a game to rest. Brady’s own QB guru, the former MLB pitcher Tom House, who has a company — 3DQB — that trains quarterbacks, says one extra game “will not make a significant difference for quarterbacks.”

In most instances, Flores says, “The quarterback plays every snap, the O-line every snap, all things equal and going well. All others really manage themselves — the running backs, wide receivers and tight ends are in and out of the game and most of the defense, too, other than one safety or one linebacker. So that can manage itself, especially early in the year when no one’s really ready to play 80 snaps. We try to break it up, and we have that in mind, but at the end of the day, you need to put your best players on the field.”

Billick calls running back “the most demanding position in the NFL, for my money, because of the beating you take.” So teams may face juggling at that position. “Is it Week 15-16-17 where you have to walk that balance?” Billick says. “If you have a 250-plus-carry guy, how do you manage the last few games? You don’t want to be protective and miss the playoffs or a seeding, but you can’t wear a guy out so he’s not as ready for the playoffs as you would like.

“One more game, face value, how much difference does it make? Well, it really does.”

“To some, it’s one more exposure to risk,” adds Scott Pioli, the longtime NFL executive who won three Super Bowls as director of player personnel for the New England Patriots and is now an analyst for the NFL Network. “To others, it’s one more shot at opportunity.”

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Owners and the NFL Players Association have talked about expanding the schedule since at least 2010, and an 18-game slate was even discussed in previous Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. This year’s schedule, following new media deals for the league that are reportedly worth more than $100 billion, reduces the preseason to three games (there were none last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic).

There will be two weeks between the end of the preseason and the start of the regular season, which is slated to begin Sept. 9 and end Jan. 9, 2022. Teams will still get one bye week, which means the 17-game regular season will be played over 18 weeks.

Players, of course, are concerned about additional injury risk, and some even grumbled on social media when the 17th game was announced, including New Orleans Saints star running back Alvin Kamara. But the change was part of the 10-year extension of the CBA negotiated last March between the NFL owners and the NFLPA, and the players passed it by a narrow margin as part of a tradeoff to share in the league’s new media deals.

The NFL points to injury data that says a preseason game is the football activity that has the highest rates of injury and concussions; in fact, a preseason game has a 27 percent higher rate for missed-time injuries and a 15 percent higher rate for concussions than a regular-season game. Does that mean there’s no meaningful difference in injury risk from swapping out a preseason game for a 17th game? That, of course, remains to be seen.

Still, limiting plays is on the league’s mind. Here’s an example: While examining options to possibly tweak overtime rules, the league is wary of adding too many additional snaps to what will already have been an exhausting Sunday for players. So a potential OT option — the college-style shootout — is considered unattractive since it would pile too many plays onto players who are already playing more games than ever.

And there have been adjustments to training camp in recent years, including an acclimation period before padded practices begin and a reduction in padded practices overall, from 28 to 16. Coaches also build in days off for certain players. Bruce Arians, head coach of the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, enjoyed success doing that last year with veterans such as Rob Gronkowski.

And with wearable tech, “coaches are now able to quantify the demands of their practice,” says Leigh Weiss, director of Rehabilitation/Physical Therapist for the New York Giants, who chairs the NFL/NFLPA Lower Extremity Soft Tissue Injury Task Force. “Maybe they thought a practice was moderate, but the data shows something else. … Maybe their wide receivers ran a whole bunch, and it might tell the coach to back off or when to step on the gas. We couldn’t do it five years ago; now it’s common practice.”

While some coaches famously want all the reps they can get, Arians says he prefers three preseason games. “The fourth one was usually all guys trying to make that final cut, and you weren’t playing anybody that was an injury risk for playing in your first two ballgames,” he says.

The two-week buffer between the end of preseason and the regular season will pose another wrinkle. Sitting starters after two preseason games means they’d have three weeks without a game until the opener. “That’s a long time to have no action,” Flores says. “I would say it’s going to be a feel thing for each coach.”

A team’s bye week will help determine how it approaches in-season work, Arians says: “If you have an early open date in a 17-game sked, that’s going to be a grind in December. Last year, I didn’t like having a Week 13 (bye), but I’d probably rather have a Week 10 to 13 open date with a 17-game schedule. Once you get to Thanksgiving, you start limiting the number of snaps in practice as far as full speed versus walk-through. You should be ready to go by then and not have to physically do as much.”

Beyond load management, the NFL sees the 17th game as a way to help grow the sport overseas — each of the 32 teams will play an international game at least once every eight years.

The 17th game adds quirks, too; no team can finish .500 now because the slate is uneven. And given today’s laser-accurate QBs, four more quarters could put the NFL record book under siege, especially for counting stats such as passing yards. FYI: Peyton Manning set the single-season record (5,477) in 2013.

On the question of how to handle this first season of 17 games, no one has all the answers yet. They’re looking for them, though.

“I know the technology side will help us prepare the athletes,” Weiss says. “Ultimately, you want to have them peak at the right time. We’re going to learn a ton this year.”

Coaches included. Flores knows just how to approach it. “Fluid is the right word, and that’s the game of football,” the Dolphins head coach says. “We all have to adjust. In this case, it’s a 17th game. We’re built to be flexible.”

— Written by Anthony McCarron (@AnthonyMcCarron) for Athlon Sports' 2021 Pro Football Magazine.