- - Wednesday, September 13, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Before Week One of the National Football League began, more than 1,100 of the best football players in the world had their dreams end as NFL teams trimmed their rosters from 90 to 53 to start the regular season. Some of those players will sign with other teams. Others have been signed to a team’s practice squad, which consists of 10 spots on each team where the player can practice with the team but can’t play in the game.

It’s a shame that so many elite athletes will soon find themselves selling insurance or bagging groceries. To change that, the NFL should expand roster sizes to 65 for the active roster and 30 for the practice squad. There are two good reasons for doing so.

First, NFL football would be better if the players who were cut kept playing football. After all, they’re in the top 3,000 at what they do but they were cut because they aren’t in the top 2,000. It’s a waste of their talents for them to give up on football. Society would never expect that only the top 2,000 lawyers in the country practice law.

The posterboy for this point is Kurt Warner. Mr. Warner was cut by an NFL team before a stunning career that closed last month when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But fans are lucky they ever got to see the Greatest Show on Turf that Mr. Warner orchestrated on his way to winning a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams.

After being cut, Mr. Warner had to bag groceries at a Hy-Vee in Iowa to keep food on the table for his family. Fortunately for football fans, Mr. Warner kept working for his dream.

There may be scores more players like Curt Warner out there who just need a chance from a team. We’ll never know how good some of them could have been, though, because there are no other professional leagues where players can develop and show their skills. There’s the Canadian Football League, but the rules are different enough that it’s hard for skills to translate at a lot of positions. Basketball, soccer, baseball and hockey each have a plethora of options for players who get passed over by the top pro league. If a basketball player comes from a small school and can’t get an NBA team to seriously consider him, for example, he can sign with an Italian (or Spanish or Greek or Israeli) team and distinguish himself there.

There’s no similar option for football players. The NFL should thus expand the number of spots on practice squads from 10 players to 30. That would reduce the chances of a future Kurt Warner slipping through the evaluation process and spending his 20s and 30s in a supermarket rather than entertaining millions.

Second, players would be injured less frequently if the active roster were expanded. Though the active roster is 53, only 46 players can dress for a team on game day. With 11 starters on each side of the ball and specialists on special teams, most players must take most snaps at their position each game. That means the player is exposed to more bumps, more bruises, more breaks and more concussions.

Having players perform while injured or having players’ careers cut short owing to the cumulative effect of many hits is bad for players and bad for the game. More players on the active roster and dressing for game day would allow teams to have players who specialize within a position and allow starters to take off a few more plays. For instance, with expanded rosters, a team might have an undersized but shifty wide receiver who only comes into the game to run a screen play. That player gets to play, the team benefits from a one-trick player who otherwise couldn’t make the team, and the starter doesn’t take that extra hit or two a game.

Top college programs like Alabama and Clemson already do this because they each have dozens more players than NFL teams and dozens more are allowed to dress for games (the specific numbers vary by conference).

The NFL is the most successful sports league in the United States. One of the reasons is that the league endlessly tweaks the game to make it better. The next change the league should make is to expand the practice squad to 30 players and the active roster to 65 players.

• A.J. Kritikos is a lawyer in private practice in Illinois.

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