PHOENIX — NFL owners increased the regular season from 16 games to 17 in March 2021, but that’s not a finishing point. This past December, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he is a “big proponent” of ultimately increasing the schedule to 18 games.
But the 2022 season should give the owners pause about adding another game, and whether the current 17-game schedule is even appropriate.
According to data provided by the NFL, concussions this season increased by 18 percent from 2021, and are up 14 percent over the three-year average from 2018-20.
And the enduring images of the 2022 season were not necessarily touchdowns or interceptions but Tua Tagovailoa’s cringe-inducing concussions that required the league to change its protocols, and Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest.
Speaking Wednesday at his annual Super Bowl news conference, commissioner Roger Goodell said adding games hasn’t put players at a greater risk.
“I’m not sure I accept your premise that we need to reevaluate that,” he said. “I would say on Week 18, the injury rate is absolutely no different than any other week … Thursday night football [injury rate] continues to be no different than a game on Sunday. It’s hard to draw conclusions from one year.”
Goodell noted that the total number of injuries decreased by nearly 6 percent from 2021 to 2022. The NFL also saw a 52 percent reduction in concussions during training camp for players who were required to wear protective Guardian Caps over their helmets (linemen, tight ends, and linebackers). And Goodell said the NFL broadened the criteria for performing concussion evaluations, conducting 17 percent more in 2022.
“If you’re going to have more evaluations, you’re going to have more concussions,” Goodell said. “We don’t want concussions to occur; we want to prevent them and treat them. But we’re not afraid of having them be diagnosed. That’s why we encourage players, coaches, and everyone else to come forward when they have symptoms.”
Other takeaways from Goodell’s news conference, which lasted 46 minutes:
▪ One comment that millions of fans probably don’t agree with was about officiating. “I don’t think it’s ever been better in the league,” Goodell said. “There are over 42,000 plays in a season, and our officials do an extraordinary job.”
Goodell’s overall sentiment is correct; the officials do a great job 95 percent of the time. But the use of instant replay was inconsistent throughout the season, and the AFC Championship game was marred by confusion and poor officiating.
Goodell didn’t say whether the league intends to hire more officials full-time or change the way it doles out postseason assignments.
“We may not agree with every TV announcer or every officiating expert, but we think our officials are doing a great job,” Goodell said. “In addition, I think we all have to realize the quality of what we see; you’ve never been able to see the kinds of things you can see today, super slo mo. Sometimes that distorts a call.”
▪ Goodell acknowledged that there is “more work ahead of us” as it pertains to improving diversity among key positions — head coaches, general managers, front office executives, offensive coordinators, and quarterbacks coaches. But he said he is pleased with the effectiveness of the league’s “accelerator programs,” of which two were held last year. The programs help introduce NFL owners to minority candidates, and vice versa, and resulted this offseason in the Titans hiring GM Ran Carthon, who is Black.
“We’re pleased to see progress, but it’s never enough,” Goodell said. “We all want short-term results, but it’s important to have it be sustainable for the future, and we think diversity makes us stronger.”
▪ Moving the Thursday night package from network television (Fox) to streaming (Amazon) cost the NFL 41 percent of its viewership in 2022, to an average of just 9.6 million viewers per game. But Goodell said the NFL is thrilled because it brought football to a younger audience.
“We went to a different platform intentionally, and it was entirely to focus on reaching that younger demographic,” Goodell said. “And it worked. It was exactly what we anticipated. We are overwhelmed, and Amazon is also with the results of it. I think we reduced the average age of our audience almost 10 years, and that’s exactly what we were looking for.”
▪ Goodell added that flex scheduling will come to “Monday Night Football” in 2023 with the start of new TV deals, and “it wouldn’t surprise me” if the NFL eventually does flex scheduling on Thursday nights.
▪ The NFL was blown away by the reaction to its first game in Germany this season and is full steam ahead on international expansion.
“We want to make NFL football a global sport,” Goodell said. “We broke every record around our international games this year — viewership and attendance. The excitement is just extraordinary.”
▪ The NFL is thrilled with the new Pro Bowl Games that took place last weekend in Las Vegas, with flag football and skills competition replacing the traditional all-star game. Goodell said 52,000 fans bought tickets to the games, the players loved the new format, and the flag football game helped promote the NFL’s grassroots efforts with flag football.
“The Pro Bowl was a pivotal moment for us,” Goodell said. “When I was there on Thursday, the players were just wonderful, they loved it and they were embracing it. I think we have a lot to build on there, and I don’t see us going back in any way. Flag is the future for us.”
▪ The tensest interaction came between Goodell and an NFL Media employee who wanted to know why the league’s own media network (NFL Network and NFL.com) doesn’t have any Black executives or editors on the news desk.
“I am not in charge of the newsroom,” Goodell said. “As you point out, this is the same question you asked last year, and we did go back and review everything across the league … I am comfortable that we made significant progress across the league.”
▪ Even the NFL Play 60 kid, whose inclusion in the news conference is usually to give a break to Goodell from tough questions, came in hot. Her question: “How does it feel being booed at the NFL Draft?”
Goodell chuckled and said, “I actually love it, personally. It’s a way for fans to interact, it’s a way for them to be part of it.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.