Starting on Thursday, September 9, the NFL begins something it hasn’t done since 1930: play more than 16 regular-season games in a year.
The 18-week, 17-game season will begin with the Dallas Cowboys on the road against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday Night Football. Three days later, the Kansas City Chiefs will open their season against the Cleveland Browns with a fairly rare 3:25 p.m. start at Arrowhead Stadium.
The way some tell it, the lengthened regular season will be a disaster. More players will be injured, they say. The quality of play will decrease. Teams will have trouble fielding rosters unless gameday roster sizes are increased.
And they may be right. But the 17-game season is now a reality — one to which teams will have to adjust. Might they find a way to rotate players, giving them some additional rest at some point of the season?
“I’ve thought about it,” said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid last week. “I’m not sure you can do that with the parity in the league and the way the playoffs are set up; every game is an important game. But the competition and the numbers, you should be able to rotate guys if we’re handling this thing right.”
Oddly enough, there is some precedent for this — although it is a very small sample size. Since schedules dropped below 18 games in 1930, exactly eight NFL players have played 17 regular-season games in a single year: Emmanuel Sanders, Damon Harrison, Will Witherspoon, Jerry Rice, Chris Singleton, Will Allen, Dexter Carter and Micah Ross.
They all did it by moving from one team to another during a season — before their first team had a bye week, but after their new team had theirs.
The most recent was wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who moved from the Denver Broncos to the San Francisco 49ers in 2019. In Sanders’ case, he was also fighting through ankle and toe injuries — and including preseason and postseason, suited up for 23 games.
“It was definitely tough,” Sanders told Yahoo! Sports in July. “If the NFL wants to change the season to 17 games they should ask me — and I say no. Because my body was hurting and I needed that break.”
Sanders didn’t mention that he’d actually had two bye weeks during the postseason. He got one because the 49ers held the NFC’s top seed. The other was because they reached the Super Bowl, which they lost to the Chiefs 31-20.
In 2004, wide receiver Micah Ross played a 17-game regular season for the San Diego Chargers and Carolina Panthers. He recalled it was hard for him because he sometimes played both ways during practices.
“Being a bottom-of-the-roster guy, you’re playing on every scout-team unit,” he said. “Guys like [Chargers receivers] Eric Parker and Tim Dwight didn’t practice on Wednesdays or Thursdays. So basically, we did a lot of heavy lifting in practice on those days. It was tiring. I would play scout-team [offense], scout-team defense and then flip over on first team and do those offensive things.”
It turned out to be much the same in Carolina. Ross managed to fight his way through a late-season hamstring injury to appear in all 17 games of his season — which would be his last.
“Doing it 17 straight weeks without a break was very tough,” he said. “Your body needs that recovery time.”
Safety Will Allen collected a 17-game season for the Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013. After starting his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he played three good seasons with the Steelers before moving on to the Cowboys. After seeing his playing time diminish, he asked to be cut.
Then Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin called, asking Allen if he wanted to return to the 0-4 Steelers. Back in Pittsburgh, Allen had a good season — contributing to the team’s 6-2 finish that nearly got it into the playoffs. And to him, that overshadowed playing in 17 games without a break.
“That was a fun year but a long year,” Allen remembered. “Playing 17 games in 17 weeks in your 10th season isn’t something I would recommend.
“But I wouldn’t trade that experience of leaving and then having it all change quickly, followed by me coming back to Pittsburgh and finishing on a high note.”
Allen isn’t the only member of the 17-game club who doesn’t necessarily see the lengthened season as a big burden. Like him, running back Dexter Carter did it by returning to a former team — coming back to the 49ers after leaving for the New York Jets in 1995. Carter said that with the way the league now practices, it shouldn’t be too hard for players to manage.
“Man, they don’t practice like they used to— in pads all the time,” said Carter, who played at 170 pounds. “I don’t think it’s a big deal. They still have a bye. I did it at 170. It can be done.”
Linebacker Will Witherspoon didn’t even realize he had done anything noteworthy when he moved from the St. Louis Rams (then coached by Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo) to the Philadelphia Eagles (then coached by Reid) in 2009; it was a team trainer who first noticed he would miss having a bye week that season.
“I realized it at some point, but I didn’t really care,” Witherspoon said. “No one was feeling bad for me, so I wasn’t feeling bad for myself.”
Now living on a farm in eastern Missouri that he purchased during his time in St. Louis, Witherspoon said it really wasn’t a big deal.
“It was hard, no lie,” he said, “but I didn’t feel like I accomplished some extraordinary thing. Just putting your hat on and going to work every day. Some days were harder than others.”
How will Chiefs players handle the longer season? Last week, we got a couple of clues — first from tight end Travis Kelce, who said he had been against it. But now that it’s happening, he can accept it.
“It throws an extra game at guys getting ready for the playoffs. That’s really it,” he told reporters. “I mean, I thought the 16-game season was good enough. But if guys are OK with playing one more, well, throw another one on there. Roll the ball out any way you want it — the parking lot... you name it.”
Of course... by now, Kelce is used to it. Including their postseason appearances, the Chiefs have played at least 17 games in all but one season since Kelce arrived in 2013.
But perhaps the most interesting perspective of all came from — who else? — a placekicker. The Chiefs’ Harrison Butker not only doesn’t mind a 17-game season — he actually embraces it.
“The way I look at that is there’s one less preseason game,” he said matter-of-factly. “As a kicker, you’re the only kicker on the roster; a preseason game is like a regular-season game. So now I’m going to get paid like a regular-season game instead of a training camp check. So I’m all for that.”
And maybe — once the rest of the league’s players have cashed those extra regular-season checks — many of them will feel the same way.