The 2021 season will mark the first-ever NFL year with 17 regular-season games. The NFLPA agreed to the new arrangement during CBA negotiations last year. It will result in more money for networks and owners and more football for fans. The more negative side effects (aside from the fact that we have to get used to seeing records like 10-7) won't be realized until the season is done and we can look back on the effect of adding an extra game's worth of wear and tear for every team.
To whit, Tedy Bruschi discussed the concept of load management and how it could be applied to this NFL season on Get Up this morning. It started because the crew realized that the Washington Football Team's last five games are all divisional games, making those significantly more important than the non-divisional and non-conference games that dominate the early part of the WFT's year. Bruschi thinks load management could not only be applied by the Football Team, but by the league at large depending on how the schedules fall.
It's an interesting discussion in part because the idea of NFL load management will be much different than NBA load management. In the NBA, "load management" has become synonymous with resting a healthy player in a game that doesn't matter to preserve their energy level and reduce wear-and-tear as much as possible. Teams are able to pull that off with relatively little consequence because there are so many games in a season that dropping a mid-week January matchup to a non-divisional opponent will likely not matter in the slightest in regards to playoff seeding.
That is, of course, not at all the case in the NFL. Several teams' playoff hopes came down to the final game of the year in 2020. Every game matters a lot, even if there are now 17 instead of 16. Every single player works together in concert to succeed. A game could be won or lost depending on the availability of anyone from a superstar quarterback to a key defensive lineman. Some are more important than others, obviously, but high-level talent is spread thinly in the NFL compared to the NBA. Quality depth is harder to come by.
But football is also a more physical game than basketball, and we've heard former NFL players speak a lot about how nobody is really 100 percent at the end of the year. Every player on the roster from top to bottom is dealing with some kind of ailment or lingering hurt by the playoffs. Using the WFT as an example, they aren't going to sit Ryan Fitzpatrick or Chase Young in Week 14 against the Raiders, because losing either of those two significantly impacts their chances of victory. But would they rest someone like Antonio Gibson or Daron Payne if they have some lingering ankle pain to make sure they're as healthy as possible for the divisional stretch run to end the year? They might.
I'm not sure we'll see it as "load management" as much as it'll just be more caution than we've seen in the past. An extra game to make up for a bad loss means coaches can feel more comfortable resting important players who are dealing with an injury that hinders their play but wouldn't prevent them from playing entirely in the past. There will be less pressure for a guy to get on the field with that extra week's cushion. Every coach will talk about how every week is must-win and all that jazz, but it feels probable that internal conversations will be different and coaches will be more open to giving a player an extra week of rest if they're right on the edge of that do/do not play line.
Ironically, it will be most similar to how Kawhi Leonard has handled his injury situation. Leonard is the face of load management, the player everyone points to as the catalyst for the now-popular trend of resting star players on a moment's notice in pursuit of healthy postseason play. But Leonard did not start sitting out games for no reason. He has a debilitating quad issue, called right quadricep tendinopathy, that won't really ever go away while he is a professional athlete. It can cause a domino effect for other injuries that need management on their own. Leonard is not sitting out games because he doesn't want to risk injury. He's sitting out to prevent the injuries he already has from getting worse.
If anything, it'll be the same in the NFL. No coach is going to hold out a star player to reduce the chance he'll get hurt unless the game is absolutely 100 percent meaningless, like the final game of the year when playoff seedings are set in stone. But many coaches could be convinced to hold out that same star player if they have some lingering pain and the upcoming matchup is against a team from a different conference in the middle of the season with lots of time to make up for a loss. Each team will handle it differently, but I believe Bruschi will end up right, even if the perception will be different.