There are some things that I think would benefit the sport, however. I thought I’d propose them here for some debate (or lack thereof).
1. Increasing the roster size.
With the number of injuries that occur on a yearly basis, teams are frequently forced to sign players off the street for spot starts and to fill in special teams rolls. These players are juggled around the league and never truly get an opportunity to grow as players. If the rosters are increased, teams can take on more project players and develop them into good players. With the roster limits, players like Tony Romo and Bart Scott are tough to find because they rarely get an extended opportunity to learn in one system and become masters at it. I would argue that an increase on the rosters allows more players to compete for starting rolls, as well as more players to earn their living playing a game they love.
2. Tweak the draft.
Part of what makes an NHL draft exciting is the number of trades that occur. The NFL has seen part of this but in the last 5 years or so, trades at the top have become harder and harder to come by because teams have begun to treat their draft picks as the precious commodities they are. But I think it would benefit the NFL to open up draft day a little more on day one. Part of the problem is on the table currently – rookie salary caps. If the pay between pick 1 and pick 10 is minimal, a team may be more willing to make a move up. I would also argue that the NFL should increase the compensatory pick system. This season Julius Peppers left Carolina and they were rewarded with a 3rd round pick (essentially the first pick in the 4th round). The Bears got a top 10 defensive end in the NFL. While those two should not be equal (thus encouraging teams to resign free agents), there should be better compensation for teams that lose such dynamic players. The limit should not be restricted to 3rd – 7th round, but open to all the rounds (always occurring at the end of the round). Now Peppers may not be worth a 4th round pick, but he could be worth a 3rd or 2nd.
3. Take some advice from Soccer
My first foray into the soccer world, I discovered that the English Premiere League is actually one of several leagues that play in England. At first I thought they were merely a farm system, but in fact, they are interconnected. The bottom teams (I believe its 3) are demoted, while the top 3 teams from the lower division are promoted (it’s a little more complicated than this, but for the argument lets stick to this). With the UFL working on creating a competing league, and the AFL continuing a semi-productive career, I think the NFL should considering expanding by a few teams. I wouldn’t say that it should be a whole new league, but incorporating new markets (perhaps Canadian or European), into the fold would help spread the sport further. They would play games within their bracket, clearly, but would have games scheduled against lower teams in the upper league as well. Obviously there are logistical difficulties with teams across the pond, but let us say the UFL is brought into the NFL as well as expanding the league from 5 to 8. These teams would feature 1 team for each division in the current NFL. They would be demoted to the lower league and each year the lowest team from the division would drop down. This would ensure constant fluctuation so that teams wouldn’t habitually be stuck in the lower division, and allow younger teams to develop in a lower pressures situation.
To set up we’ll see the AFC East. Buffalo, New England, Miami, New York, and add in Toronto as an expansion. Toronto would start in the NFL B and receive a top 8 draft pick. They would play the 7 other teams in the NFL B twice, as well as their division rivals (once) which would create an 18 game season (NFL owners are happier already).
Teams in the top would have a more complicated schedule. They would play their division rivals twice (the NFL B division team once), all other likewise seeded teams (if they finished top of their division, they play top of the other divisions) throughout the league ( that’s 7 games which puts us at 14). Then they would play an alternating division (ie the NFC West, South, etc, etc) each year (one of them is covered in the likewise seeded team which gives us 3 games totaling 17) and then the NFL gets a free game to schedule which allows them to incorporate budding rivalries that might now show up in the pre-determined schedule (like Pats-Colts for instance). This incorporates all the elements of balancing, the prevention of teams not playing each other for extended periods of time, and a maximization of marketing through premiere scheduling.
I’ll admit to some potential problems. If the draft incorporates these 8 teams (and it inevitably must give them the top 8 picks in order to continue the promotion of competition) then there is little stopping them from sand bagging a year for the top player. Likewise, there is little incentive for their fans to watch games because they have no possibility of winning the Super Bowl or advancing to the playoffs. There is little for fans to enjoy besides the game itself and watching the development of players. There is also the problem of the realization that if a team is demoted, they will be at least a year away from real competition.
There are advantages for teams of course. If they’re demoted, they can draft players that can get some real game experience without as much pressure from a fan base, allowing them a full season to grow, but this could also quickly become a habitually losing franchise. However, with all the competitive balances in place in the NFL, I think it would be difficult for teams in the lower bracket to not advance.
I think that this system could create some intrigue in the late season as teams losing teams fight to maintain their spot in the top league (possibly by beating a playoff contention team whereas they might give up on the season). It creates a draft system like the NBA, and could potential incorporate the random selection process for the lower eight teams (which is something I wouldn’t necessarily like, but could prevent teams quitting in the lower league and if they did it live would draw more people to view the draft there by making it more marketable).
I know its a complicated system, but I don’t think that the NFL should ignore successful strategies employed by other sports that could help draw more interest into the sport.