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Records will fall in 17-game seasons — but soon, we won’t care

It’s not the first time the NFL has lengthened its season.

Detroit Lions v Washington Redskins Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

In the spring of 1978, National Football League owners voted to expand the league’s regular-season schedule from 14 to 16 games. Here is how the New York Times began its coverage on March 30.

PHOENIX, March 29—The National Football League voted today to increase its regular‐season schedule to 16 games starting in 1978. It also voted to add two wild‐card teams to the playoff pattern so that a total of 10 teams would qualify for the elimination tournament that leads to the Super Bowl.

The new schedule will also create the fairest competitive alignment the NFL has had since it merged with the American [Football] League and started playing an integrated schedule in 1970. The emphasis is on equality of opposition: In every case, all the teams in a division will play 12 of their 16 games against the same opponents, and in the case of the teams most likely to be fighting for wild‐card berths, all 16 games will be against common opponents.

The Times noted that the preseason schedule would be reduced from six games to four — and that other changes to the process would help team schedules have relatively equal difficulty compared with those of other teams.

In the past, the random nature of the schedule cycle had made it possible for one team to come up with a significantly tougher or easier schedule than another in its division or a team in a different division that was in the fight for a wild‐card spot. In the new pattern, inequities of this sort will be minimized, especially for the second-and‐third‐place teams fighting for the wild‐card spots.

Nowhere, however, was there a note that with two additional games on the schedule, multiple NFL records would fall — and future records would be tainted because they came from longer seasons.

But this past spring — when owners voted to expand the regular season to 17 games and reduce the preseason to three — that wasn’t the case. “NFL 17-game schedule approved: Five single-season records in danger of being broken with expansion,” shouted CBSSports.com exactly 44 years later. “How Will a 17-Game Season Impact NFL Record Books?” asked The Ringer. “Six famous NFL records further jeopardized by 17-game season,” trumpeted USA Today.

And it’s true: when Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes passed for more than 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in 2018, he became only the second quarterback in league history to reach both benchmarks in a single season. But with another game on the schedule, every quarterback’s total passing yards (and touchdown passes) will automatically improve — on average — by 6.25%.

That might not seem like much. But one example provided by The Ringer showed that many NFL quarterbacks have been flirting with 5,000-yard seasons during the last decade. A slight increase could make a big difference.

In the past 10 years, seven quarterbacks have combined for 10 5,000-yard passing seasons (Drew Brees is the only player to have done it multiple times, with four such seasons). If the schedule had featured 17 games over that stretch, the number of 5,000-yard passing seasons likely would have jumped to 28.

And that, said The Ringer, means our expectations will change.

Eclipsing 5,000 passing yards went from an unheard-of feat to something that will seem downright ordinary in the decades to come. Soon, 6,000 yards will take over as the special benchmark. Take a look at that list above again. The guys at the top of it—Peyton Manning and Brees—likely would have reached 5,800 yards with a 17-game season. If the passing boom continues, 6,000 will be easily within reach. Cue Justin Timberlake voice: Five thousand yards isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? Six thousand yards.

The same is true of other so-called “counting stats” like rushing yards, receiving yards, sacks and interceptions — although one record will likely remain safe for a while, as The Ringer’s Riley McAtee noted.

We all had fun with Jameis Winston’s 30-interception season in 2019, but the single-season QB record is 42 interceptions, set by George Blanda in 1962. That was a 14-game season — Blanda averaged three picks per game. This one won’t be broken anytime soon. Sorry, George.

So existing records for many counting stats will soon fall. Will we care? Should we care?

If history is any guide, we will care — but just for a while. In the years after the NFL changed to a 16-game schedule, many such records were broken. During the first few years, journalists did their jobs — dutifully noting that previous records had been set in seasons with only 14 games.

But as time passed, it seemed less and less important to do so. It’s now been more than two generations since the NFL lengthened its regular season — meaning that a large number of fans weren’t even alive when things were different. Today, it’s common for journalists to simply ignore the fact that pro football even existed for the five decades before the first Super Bowl. It’s just a lot easier to refer to the “modern era,” in which statistics were kept better — and over the Internet, are available (not to mention searchable) to even casual fans.

Besides... our standards have improved. Back when 14-game seasons were the standard, counting stats were the rule; most fans didn’t look beyond them. But more recently — as the game (and its fans) have become more sophisticated — statistics have become more refined, too; they started being expressed in incremental forms in which the number of games didn't really matter.

Today, we still pay attention to counting stats — after all, some things never change — but serious fans recognize that while they are still the most commonly expressed type of statistic, they provide the least information. A 5,000-yard passer can be a quarterback for a losing team who racks up huge numbers while playing from behind week after week. (Brees did it four times, but the New Orleans Saints didn't make the playoffs in three of those seasons). A defensive back can give up more passes than any other player on their team — but have a lower opposing passer rating than their teammates in the secondary.

So yes... records are going to fall. But over the space of just a few years, we’ll likely start to forget that the NFL ever played fewer than 17 games.