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An 18-game season is a non-starter for NFL players, but these ideas might not be

It doesn’t look like NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will be able to stage an 18-game regular season, but plenty of other ideas could work. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Given the NFL’s uninspiring propensity to daydream about adding games — and danger — to its high-risk sport, you must wonder how those recurring negotiations last more than 30 seconds. They can’t be much more constructive than saying “How was your day?” to a preschooler.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell: “So, uh, how about that 18-game schedule?”

NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith: “Again, Roger?”

Goodell: “Is that a maybe?”

Smith: “That’s a no. N-O. Two letters, always the same meaning.”

Goodell: “Think about it and get back to me.”

Sure, the conversation is more complex than that, but from the players’ perspective, it has to feel exasperating. Since 2006, the NFL has been lobbying hard to expand the schedule from 16 to 18 games. Two collective bargaining agreements ago, owners managed to include a provision to lengthen the regular season, but it was never enacted because it required notifying the players at least 90 days in advance and negotiating additional compensation with the union.

An actual in-depth proposal was presented to the players in 2010, during the previous round of CBA haggling. The union rejected it. The sides took a contentious route to a new deal , including the owners locking out the players for 4½ months of the 2011 offseason. That agreement expires after the 2020 season, which means that now is the time to start talking. Discussions reportedly have been encouraging. But the tired idea of 18 games, or any kind of regular season or playoff expansion, continues to creep into the conversation.

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In sports, this has been a timeless model, particularly when it comes to increasing television dollars: Add more events to televise and demand more money for broadcasting rights. But that economic formula grows more complicated as it becomes clear that modern athletes have reached or exceeded some of their physical limits. Maybe they are overtraining. Maybe we’re too rigid in our standards for what they can put in their bodies to recover. Or maybe, like the old folks say, we’ve all gotten too soft. For this argument, the reason doesn’t matter as much as the reality. More never has guaranteed better — and soon more could make these games markedly worse.

It was most ludicrous that the NFL floated the idea of an 18-game schedule in which players cannot play more than 16 games. In that scenario, rosters would be expanded, from 53 perhaps to 60, giving the players more jobs and in theory making it easier to shuffle the lineup from week to week, depending on who’s available. While the idea is more creative than the stodgy NFL norm, it’s also full of issues.

To the fans who spend huge money partly to see a marquee player, how do you justify healthy stars being inactive? To television partners, how do you justify when a team decides to rest players and turn a prime matchup into a dull exhibition? Remember the issues that the NBA, which plays a much longer season and possesses a stronger likelihood of absences, had a few seasons ago related to players resting? Those were just the acts of individual teams. Imagine if a league was legislated to encourage such chaos.

Opening the “mandatory rest” box could help teams tank late in the season. And, in reality, the rosters might have to be even larger than 60 players — and, without question, there would have to be more than 46 active on game days — to make the math work. It’s complicated, and for everyone involved, it would make the season feel too long. There’s a fine line between believing in your product and being so arrogant that you think you can roll out your product, in any form, and expect people to be thrilled just because it carries the label of an NFL game.

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Of the possibility of the players agreeing to 18 games, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman told Peter King of NBC Sports, “I think it has very little chance of happening unless something astronomical is conceded.”

It would be more productive if the NFL explored better, smarter and more innovative ways to leverage its popularity and create more drama during the season without adding games. Expand the schedule? No, no, no. Change the way you schedule.

The NFL already dabbles with injecting drama into the schedule by focusing on division games at the end of the year. In 2006, it introduced prime-time flexible scheduling, which has contributed to the success of NBC’s Sunday night games. There are so many ways to change the structure of the schedule and create moments.

Instead of a slate of eight home and road games, NFL teams could go to a 7-7-2 schedule: seven home and away games, plus two at neutral sites (one close to home in a non-NFL stadium and one wherever the league chooses). Or the standard could be one neutral-site game per year for every team, meaning one home game would be lost every other year. As long as the NFL can show the long-term benefits of making the product portable and create the revenue to mitigate the loss of one home gate, teams would learn to live with it.

I would like to see a mystery TBA game for all teams in the first week of December. The goal would be to schedule matchups that would serve, effectively, as pre-playoff previews. For the best teams, it would be the enhanced NFL version of the old ESPN college basketball “BracketBusters” challenge. At the beginning of the final month of the season, the NFL would have a way to ensure some big-time late-season games to get people excited for the postseason or separate the contenders from the pretenders. For the really bad teams, there would be games between squads on the same level in which competitiveness might combat the possibility of tanking. All of a sudden, Week 14 of the regular season is a mega-week.

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There are also very simple ideas, such as eliminating at least one of the four preseason games, playing 16 games over 18 weeks and giving every team two byes. It adds another week of regular season programming without really doing anything. It also might provide enough wiggle room to give teams a bye before playing a Thursday night game. If the NFL truly cares about its players and the quality of its product, it will do everything possible to eliminate the perilous Sunday-to-Thursday transition.

For now, the point isn’t to love any idea or set of ideas over an 18-game schedule. It is to look at the many things you could try, in some form, before zeroing in on expanding the season. The NFL acts as if a beefier schedule is the only option. It’s not. It’s the easiest, laziest option.

During this CBA negotiation, there might not be enough time for Goodell to present something imaginative. But the best NFL minds need to start focusing beyond 18 games. The solution isn’t more. It is better. Structure the season better. Create better drama. Force better matchups.

Do better and profit. It sure beats having the same non-starter conversation.