By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008
The NFL's preseason wraps up over the next two days, with the Washington Redskins and Indianapolis Colts playing their fifth exhibition games and other teams playing their fourth. Those who think the football has been forgettable and the injuries suffered by players unnecessary can take solace in one thing: Most of those in the sport, including Commissioner Roger Goodell, agree.
Sentiment among NFL leaders to reduce the preseason to two or three games per team and lengthen the regular season to 17 or 18 games, up from the current 16, is growing, and it seems generally accepted that such an adjustment likely will be made within the next few years.
"I think it would be a positive," New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said this week, "and I do think it will happen."
Goodell and the owners already were studying the issue before the defending Super Bowl champions, the New York Giants, lost standout defensive end Osi Umenyiora to a season-ending knee injury in a preseason game against the New York Jets on Saturday night, and before the Redskins had to fret that Jason Taylor's knee injury the same night would end his season. It didn't, but the Redskins didn't know that when his knee was wrenched beneath a pileup of players during Saturday night's game at Carolina.
And while they regret having their product diminished by injuries to players in games that don't count in the regular season standings, the real impetus for Goodell and the owners to act on the issue is economic.
More regular season games would mean more revenue in television rights fees, which are worth about $3.7 billion per season in the current deals with NBC, Fox, CBS, ESPN and DirecTV.
"The players' view can be really simple: If I get paid for two extra games, I'll play two more games," former San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Randy Cross said. "The fans' view is: More of the real stuff is better. The realistic view is: It's a way to generate more revenues."
That is a key element, with the owners about to negotiate a new labor agreement with the NFL Players Association. The owners exercised a reopener clause in the labor deal in May, making the 2010 season the final one in the agreement. While the union would have to approve an increase in the number of games, the owners believe they could give them an incentive because the players currently receive 60 percent of total league revenues under the salary cap system.
"I know some people will want to pit ownership against players on this issue," Kraft said in a telephone interview. "To me, this is about partnership. For us to be able to extend this labor deal, we're going to have to find a way to grow revenues. Basically, it would be the same preparation for most of the players. What we would be doing is taking entertainment contests and improving them. I think it's something the fans probably want."
Players aren't paid during the preseason; instead, they're paid in 17 installments during the regular season. The owners make big money by charging regular season ticket prices for preseason games, but still could come out ahead if the additional regular season games boost TV rights fees considerably.
The drawbacks to adding games would be diluting the product, and limiting chances for younger players. The small number of regular season games makes each weekend vitally important. Adding too many games could detract from that, but the owners don't seem to fear they're nearing that point yet.
Fewer preseason games, however, would mean fewer opportunities for unheralded young players to prove they deserve roster spots. Kraft called that his only concern, and Cross said it would be particularly detrimental to the development of young quarterbacks. He pointed out that the league already shut down its developmental league for young players in Europe.
"If you don't like the quality of quarterback play now," said Cross, now a broadcaster with CBS, "take away those two [preseason] games that are in kind of a laboratory environment and see how you like it then."
But NFL teams already practice practically year-round these days, and Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome said coaches would have to find other ways to give opportunities for younger players to prove themselves.
"Can you get your team ready to play? Yes," Newsome said. "But do you have enough time to evaluate your younger players? Probably not. That would be the issue. You'd have to come up with some other mechanism, like scrimmages."
Taking away two preseason games, in which veterans go less than all out and spend much of their time on the sideline, and replacing them with two far more intense regular season games might seem to increase the threat of injuries. But Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end for the Cleveland Browns, said he isn't overly concerned.
"We've had more guys sustain injuries in practice," Newsome said. "They didn't get hurt in games. They got hurt in practice. You have to practice. You can't get rid of injuries."
The questions, then, become what changes to make and when to make them. Goodell said at an owners' meeting in May in Atlanta that the owners were considering the possibility of adding a 17th regular season game. That could leave some teams playing nine home games in a season while others play eight. Goodell said the extra home game could rotate annually by conference.
It also has been speculated that, with the NFL having made a push in recent years to increase its global appeal by playing regular season games outside the United States, the 17th regular season game could be devoted to playing at overseas sites. Cross said he could envision that happening.
"I think it'll go to 17 first," Cross said, adding that he could foresee such a change as soon as the 2009 season. "I think we'll see the 17th in pretty short order and then if that works well, go to 18 somewhere down the line."
But Kraft said he would favor a jump from 16 to 18 regular season games per team.
"I could support the other [17 games] if my colleagues thought that was the way to go," Kraft said. "But we all want to win and it's about competitive balance. If you go to 17, there would be some competitive imbalance each season. I would support 17. But I think 18 is a little cleaner."
In May, Goodell was noncommittal when asked whether talks with the union to secure the players' approval of lengthening the regular season would have to come as part of the labor negotiations, or in a separate set of discussions that could be more quickly resolved. He said that had yet to be determined. This week, Kraft said he believes such talks with the union must come as part of the labor negotiations.
If so, that would mean the change probably wouldn't be made before the 2010 season. Under the current labor agreement, the 2009 season is the final one with a salary cap. That is likely to push the owners and players to try to get a new labor deal done in the spring of 2010, and any changes negotiated into that agreement would take effect the following fall.
The TV money could be negotiated soon thereafter. The league's deals with NBC, Fox and CBS run through the 2011 season. Its deal with DirecTV expires after the 2010 season, and its deal with ESPN runs through the 2013 season.
"I would only see it as part of a new labor deal," Kraft said. "We could probably negotiate on the TV end of it. It would create some opportunities to do a few things. But I really see this in the context of the labor agreement."