NFL owners voted to expand the 2021 season schedule to 17 games Tuesday — an expected move that already has drawn criticism from the league’s players.
The Bears are expected to play their 17th game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, according to a widely reported AFC vs. NFC formula.
The expansion to a 17-game schedule was considered inevitable after the NFL and the NFL Players Association signed the current collective bargaining agreement last March that included a provision for it. The league’s financial straits caused by the coronavirus season with few fans in the stadiums likely hastened the move for the 2021 season.
Because the league did not add a bye week to accommodate the extra game, NFL teams will play 17 games in 18 weeks. The start of the regular season has been pushed back a week, so Super Bowl LVI will be Feb. 13 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif.
The schedule expansion is the first for the NFL since 1978, when it increased from 14 games to 16. It will generate additional revenue to mitigate the damage of the coronavirus season — after several years of $10 million increases, the NFL’s salary cap dropped from $198.2 million in 2020 to $182.5 in 2021. But the 17th game already has come under fire in light of the general concern — shared by the league — for player safety.
The NFL shortened the preseason from four games to three — with the possibility of another game being cut in the future — in an apparent attempt to mitigate the wear-and-tear and injury factors. But that doesn’t quite compute in today’s NFL. Starters often play sparingly in the preseason. In 2019, for instances, Bears regulars played a total of 55 snaps in the preseason — with 14 players not playing at all and only rookie running back David Montgomery (13) and second-year wide receiver Anthony Miller (seven) playing more than a token five.
So for most starting players, the schedule expansion only adds another 60-70 snaps at game speed. Predictably, players criticized the move, even before the owners made it official. Former Bears safety Adrian Amos, now with the Packers, tweeted his protest Monday. In a response to a tweet by ESPN’s Adam Schefter regarding the extra game, Amos tweeted “We really let this happen” with a face-palm emoji.
Eagles cornerback Darius Slay responded to Amos’ tweet with a barb of his own: “That’s wth i’m sayin” with his own face-palm emoji.
Former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz, a regular and popular participant in NFL discussions on social media, probably said it best when he tweeted, “No surprise. More football. As a fan, love it. As a player … good luck with the extra week”
But the players have their own union to blame. The NFLPA ratified the CBA that included the 17th-game option (along with two additional playoff teams starting in 2020). That vote was close — 1,019-959 — so it’s expected that the criticism of the extra game will mount as the reality of the 17th game hits home.
The 17th game is awkward on other levels as well. Not only will it distort “season” records (as did expansion from 12 games to 14 in 1961 and from 14 games to 16 in 1977), but the odd number creates a situation where some teams will play more home games than road games and vice versa.
According to the 17th-game formula, the Baltimore Ravens will play nine home games in 2021 — on paper an advantage for a team that is 27-13 at home and 19-21 on the road over the past five seasons. The NFL has not had an odd-game schedule since 1946, when each team played 11 games. The league went to a standardized 12-game format the following season.
The NFL has considered expanding the international series to fill the 17th game with neutral-site games. In 2019, there were four international series games — including the Bears against the Raiders at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London. The series was cancelled last season because of the coronavirus.
The CBA that was ratified last year runs through 2030. The 17th game formula will continue to be an inter-conference game based on league standings from the previous season — first place vs. first place, second-place vs. second place, etc.