'Inhumane' scheduling puts NFL teams and players at risk

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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The NFL deserves just as much blame for the Chargers' woes as Norv Turner and Philip Rivers. (Getty Images)  
The NFL deserves just as much blame for the Chargers' woes as Norv Turner and Philip Rivers. (Getty Images)  

SAN DIEGO -- I'm not here to make excuses for the San Diego Chargers, their lackluster play or a four-game slide. They're in a funk, and they're in trouble. But I am here to say the Bolts have been victimized, and not just by Philip Rivers and his league-leading 15 interceptions or a defense that has more holes than Market Street.

Nope, I'm talking about the NFL office and its scheduling department.

Thursday night's game was the Chargers' third in 11 days, and, I'm sorry, that's not only wrong and unfair; it's downright inhumane.

I know Thursday night football is good for ratings, which means it's good for revenue. But it's not good for the safety and health of its players, and if you don't believe me, you weren't paying attention in San Diego's latest setback when the Chargers lost two starting offensive linemen, as well as linebacker Takeo Spikes. Backup tackle Brandyn Dombrowski was hurt, too, but that was on the game's last play.

I know that injuries happen, but these injuries happened during San Diego's third game in 11 days, and, yeah, I think that's more than a coincidence. I think it's also a wake-up call for the NFL. The league insists it's all about player safety and will do what it can to reinforce that message. But here's my problem: If you're all about player safety why would you schedule someone for three games in less than two weeks?

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That's looking out for the players? I don't think so.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell this week told a San Diego audience that the league's priority is to "make the game safer for players," though he conceded that "we can do better, and we will." I suggest he start by looking more carefully at what the league asks teams like San Diego and, soon, Green Bay, to endure when it devises schedules that more closely resemble Parris Island boot camps.

In essence, the league is penalizing those unlucky clubs because it is asking –- no, it is requiring –- them to suit up three times in 11 days, which is something it doesn't ask of others. A competitive disadvantage? You bet. Cruel and unusual punishment? I'll second that one, too, after seeing San Diego trainers lead a cadre of players off the field –- including tackle Marcus McNeill, who was removed by an electric cart.

I understand injuries are part of the game, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out you increase your chances of incurring them when you play more games in less time. Apparently, the NFL schedule makers didn't get the memo.

But why stop there? There's another complaint I have with the NFL's scheduling department, and the New York Jets know what I'm talking about. The league has them playing Sunday evening, then traveling to Denver for next Thursday's game –- or two games within four-and-a-half days. Huh? Or how about San Francisco having to make a cross-country flight to play Baltimore on Thanksgiving Day four days after the 49ers host Arizona? That's not right, either, yet it's going to happen.

I remember when Arizona had to do that in 2008, and some people within the organization grumbled that it was a competitive disadvantage to play Sunday, then fly to Philadelphia for a game four days later. I wasn't sure what they were talking about. Then I went to the Thanksgiving Day game. The Cards got drilled, 48-20, and appeared as listless as I'm sure they were.

Yet two months later they were good enough to be in their first Super Bowl.

My point is that pro football is tough enough to play as it is. The schedule is a brutal 17-week haul that becomes a war of attrition, with the healthiest teams often hanging around the longest. So why make it more difficult than it is? You don't. Yet by scheduling teams like San Diego and Green Bay for three games in 11 days the NFL ups the ante, making their climb to the finish steeper and more difficult than their peers.

Look, I never liked the idea of Thursday-night games anyway, but I understand they're here to stay. The ratings are just too high not to keep them. But I also understand the idea of making the playing field as level as possible for participating clubs. Having West Coast teams fly to East Coast cities on short weeks is not how you do that. Nor is making a Thursday game part of an 11-day, three-game swing –- particularly when someone like San Diego has an opponent coming off a bye (Green Bay) as part of that schedule.

People ask for solutions, and I tell them I'd schedule Thursday games after byes. The argument, of course, is that there are no byes late in the season when there are Thursday-night contests. Well, then, change the schedule so that the eight-game Thursday package falls in the middle of the season to make things more equitable and, yes, safer, for the clubs involved.

Remember, the NFL said it will stop at nothing to promote player safety. Well, then, stop ridiculous schedules that make the season harder for some than others.

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