The 2021 NFL regular season will include 17 games for each team, with the AFC hosting the extra game one year and the NFC hosting the extra game in the next. The extra game will be determined each year on a rotating basis, with all teams in one AFC Division playing the teams in a corresponding NFC division, with the individual matchups determined by how the teams finished in the previous year's standings. And the corresponding move was to shrink the preseason from four games to three.
For Steelers President Art Rooney II, it was time.
"On the football side of things, we have learned we can live without four preseason games," said Rooney at the conclusion of the two-day virtual Owners Meeting that ratified this change. "As you know there was a time when we had six preseason games, and then we went to four. It's still a 20-game season basically, but we're converting one of the preseason games into a regular season game. For fans, they would rather see a regular season game than a preseason game, so that makes sense. And from a football standpoint we can learn to live with three preseason games rather than four."
In some ways, the 17-and-3 formula can be viewed as a compromise to a proposal that wasn't viewed positively by either owners or players.
"At one point there was discussion about 18 games, and there was resistance to that on the ownership level," said Rooney. "We didn't have a consensus on that front, and we didn't have a consensus from the Players Association on that either. So, 17 games is a good step, and I think it can work and there are a lot of pieces to it that will work better. It's good to evolve from 16-and-4. It's time to create another regular season game, and this is a good way to do it."
One of the new pieces to the 17-and-3 format will have to do with the timing. The regular season will begin at its normal time, which means Kickoff Weekend will start on the Thursday after Labor Day, and Hall of Fame Weekend still will take place on the first weekend of August. As a result, the preseason will open for two teams in the Hall of Fame Game, which this year will be on Thursday, Aug. 5 to kick off Hall of Fame Weekend and will feature the Steelers vs. the Dallas Cowboys.
Then the rest of the league's teams will begin their preseason schedules the following weekend, which means the preseason will come to a close three weeks later.
"There is now an off week in there," said Rooney. "What would have been Preseason Week 4 under the old format is now an off week. So there is now essentially a bye week (for everybody) before the season starts, and so that will be an adjustment for coaches and players in terms of how that fits into preparing for the opener. That was part of what we negotiated with the players."
What's also being discussed with the union right now are some of the specifics for the offseason program. Last year, there was no offseason program, no OTAs, and no minicamps. Rooney doesn't believe that will be the case this year, but he also doesn't predict things will go back to what had been the NFL's normal May and June calendar.
"I don't think we're going back to normal, other than I believe we'll start on time," said Rooney. "April 19 was when we were going to originally start, but until we get through the time where more people are being vaccinated and things like that, I wouldn't call it normal. We're still going to have different protocols with regard to testing and social distancing and keeping the numbers down in terms of players in the locker room or weight room at any one time. There still will be protocols we'll be following, and those are still under discussion with the Players Association as we speak."
Rooney said he is still optimistic about the Steelers returning to Saint Vincent College for training camp as well as being able to host a stadium full of fans at Heinz Field for games. And a major source of that optimism comes from the vaccination programs currently being implemented all over the country.
"I'm still optimistic about that," said Rooney about training camp and a full stadium in the fall, "but obviously we still have a way to go here. Hopefully the vaccination programs still stay on schedule and we get to a point this summer where we're closer to back to normal, and in the fall we can have full stadiums. A way to go yet, but that's what we're hoping for."
And while the NFL and NFLPA recently issued a joint statement that the COVID vaccine won't be made mandatory for players, Rooney clearly is a believer in the benefit of needles in arms.
"'Strongly encouraged' is the phrase I would use for all of our employees, including players. And the same for fans," said Rooney about his stance on getting vaccinated. "That's something where we're still going to be waiting for guidance from public authorities on that. There is discussion, and there are places right now that are requiring a vaccination card for admission. I know there is discussion about that, both at a federal level and at a state level, and whether there are going to be policies that will be agreed upon, we'll wait and see how that goes. We're waiting for more guidance. Our position on it is we're not taking a position right now on requiring people to be vaccinated until we get to see more of the developments regarding federal policy and state policies."
And a final "benefit" of the 17-game schedule is that it will create more opportunities for teams to participate in international games without having to violate their stadium leases by moving a game to a different site. Recently, the NFL has added Germany and South America as places that could host NFL games in the future.
"We're fortunate to have fans in other countries around the world, and so at some point we'd like to have a Steelers game played in Mexico and potentially in other countries," said Rooney. "You always have to balance that with we're not that anxious to move home games. Under the current proposal we would only have to move one game every eight years, something like that. It's not going to be that burdensome on us, but I do think it's something where we do want to grow the game internationally and play games in front of our fans in Mexico and other countries.
"We're lucky enough to have Steelers fans in a lot of different places, and we'd like to play in front of them sometimes."