The Road Goes On Forever: A Not-So-Crazy Proposal to Fix the National Football League

All I am asking is that you hear me out for a minute. I know this sounds crazy. My wife has already told me it sounds crazy, so I don’t need to hear that from you. And, I get it, adding two teams to the NFL that do not, actually, have stadiums or fan bases or even practice facilities and asking them to play 17 road games a year, at first blush, sounds crazy. Not just crazy, but actually indicative of a deep-seated mental problem. Be that as it may. Just stick with me for a minute.

NFL Shield
This message was not brought to you with the permission of the Office of the Commissioner.

One of the strengths of the National Football League is that, currently, it has 32 teams. This matters more than you might think. A 32-team NFL, playing a 16-game season, means that each team can have a predictable schedule, not just for the 2020 season, but for the next century. The Dallas Cowboys, next year, will play the three other NFC East teams twice, will play all four of the AFC North teams, and all four of the NFC West teams. The only two games that weren’t set in stone were determined once the Cowboys, um, completely gave the NFC East to the Eagles; the Cowboys will be playing the second-place Falcons and Vikings instead of the first-place Saints and Packers, and this is probably to the good. But the point of all of this is that you know, for 14 of the 16 games, exactly who any NFL team will play each year.

While this is a very nice thing for the NFL, having this kind of balance means that it’s hard to expand. The NFL had similar growing pains going from 30 teams to 31 teams (requiring that at least one team sit out every week) which it fixed in going to 32. But going to 33 or 34 teams, no matter how much the NFL would like to do that, will interrupt the carefully laid-out schedule.

Add to that the fact that the NFL would like to move to an 18–week schedule. Currently, the NFL plays 16 games over 17 weeks, with one bye week per team (the scourge of fantasy football owners everywhere). The NFL, and a lot of fans, would not mind at all if there were, say, one or two pre-season games and a 17-game schedule being played out over 19 weeks with two bye weeks. But, again, adding games to the NFL season fouls up the near-perfect alignment of the schedule.

So this is my not-so-crazy idea. The NFL should:

Canton Bulldogs logo, circa 1920
Well, it looks better than the Browns logo.
  1. Add two teams to the NFL, one in the NFC and one to the AFC. I would like one of the two teams to be named the Canton Bulldogs, to honor one of the founding NFL franchises and the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but that’s just me. You can choose one of the other founding teams, like the Rock Island Independents, just because of their awesome uniforms, but whatever. Call them the London Monarchs. Whatever.
I mean, COME ON. Look at that.

2. So these two teams are, well, a little different from any other NFL team. How, you say?

3. Well, as you probably guessed already, the teams do not actually play in Canton or Rock Island, or in fact, anywhere. Why is this important?

4. This is important because these are road teams. This means that they never have any home games. They play every game in the road. They don’t have a stadium or a fan base or (this is key) an owner; they would be managed by the league.

5. As such, a league-appointed general manager would set up the rosters and a league-appointed coaching staff would coach the teams.

6. The Canton team would be in the NFC and would play each of the 16 NFC teams in their home stadiums. The AFC road team would do the same in the AFC. (Then the two road teams would meet in a neutral site to play each other the last week of the season.)

7. The road teams would get no draft picks. (So if they go 1–16, it doesn’t matter.) They would be working with minimal budgets, so no pricey free agents. The other NFL teams would be able to designate a player or two to play with a road team on a developmental basis (similar to what some teams did with the old World League).

8. This would probably — almost certainly — make these teams very, very bad indeed. But they could still make the playoffs as a wild-card (they wouldn’t be part of any division so they couldn’t ever be division champions).

What are the benefits of doing this?

First, every other NFL team now would have nine home games instead of eight, which automatically improves revenue by 12%. (This is offset by the loss of one preseason game.) This takes advantage of one of the most under appreciated problems with the league — that so many stadiums are empty half the year. This also may help a little with overall scheduling because you can shift around the road teams any old way.

Second, adding two road teams gives more players the chance to start in the NFL without displacing older players or diluting the overall product. The talent stays concentrated in the league, but the players on the road team can develop instead of being stashed on a practice squad.

But most importantly, I think, is the idea that the road teams would be a whole lot of fun.

Why would that be the case? Part of it would be that the road teams would be so undermatched in talent that they would have to resort to, well, trickeration. Different schemes. Wildcat formations. Why not? They would have nothing to lose. And as such, the NFL might hire coaches that were a little unorthodox. Tell me it wouldn’t be a lot of fun to see the NFL hire Mike Leach to run the Oakland Pirates or whatever you ended up calling these teams. (I realize this is a longshot; in the unlikely event the NFL ever implements this idea, it would hire some boring non-entity like Mike Shula or Dave Wannstedt to run the teams. But you can hope.)

And then secondly, well, how do you think that the American football-watching public will take to these teams? One thing the NFL doesn’t really have right now is underdogs. Nobody sees, for example, the Cleveland Browns or Detroit Lions as underdogs — they’re generally thought of as bad teams with bungling front offices. A lot more people would cheer for the Browns and Lions to go 0–16 (including some of their fans).

But these teams? You have to think that if the Canton Bulldogs play the New York Giants, there are going to be a whole lot of people cheering for the Canton Bulldogs (at least in Dallas). Any games that these road teams win are going to be terribly embarrassing for the loser — and very endearing for the road teams. It would be an event — like Appalachian State beating Michigan, or like Stephen F. Austin beating Duke in basketball. I am not saying you will ever have a lot of fans of these road teams, but (especially if they play fun) they would be a lot of fun to cheer for.

Why It Won’t Work

The owners won’t like it. These new franchises would have next to no value — and in theory, this would bring down the value of their franchises. And — yeah — maybe the road teams dilute the value of the product some, maybe it’s a little harder to sell tickets to a Jaguars-Monarchs game, even if it’s close to a guaranteed win for the Jaguars.

The league won’t like it. Running two teams is kind of a conflict of interest for the league, and it’s a huge administrative headache. Even running the road teams on a shoestring, the costs might be more than the revenue brings in — especially if ticket sales go down for these games.

The networks won’t like it. They might like having more games, but maybe not these particular games. You’re not going to see Troy Aikman or Joe Buck calling a lot of Canton Bulldogs games.

And the real reason — the union won’t like it. Even though it creates a lot of jobs, it doesn’t create good jobs — and by creating more opportunities, it creates opportunities for current players to lose their jobs to upstarts from the road teams. Add to that the fact that the unions don’t want the 17th game or the 18th week (even with the two byes), the whole thing is practically a non-starter.

So it’s crazy. But I still think it’s crazy enough to work. And it’s not like the NFL hasn’t done worse.