ON THE eve of
their preseason opener against the Cowboys last month, the Chargers announced
that All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson would not suit up because of a
groin injury. That was news to Tomlinson—the injury, not his playing status.
The defending two-time league rushing champion is accustomed to watching from
the sideline during exhibition games, baseball cap on his head, sunflower seeds
in his mouth, bored expression on his face. In eight NFL preseasons he has 14
rushing attempts, total—and none since the first exhibition game of 2005.
The coaching staff
doesn't need to see Tomlinson in action, nor does it want to expose him to the
kind of devastating injury that sidelined Giants Pro Bowl end Osi Umenyiora
(torn meniscus in his left knee) for the season on Aug. 23. But because the
league says only injured players are permitted to be on the sideline out of
uniform, Tomlinson spent the preseason nursing that "bad groin," a
condition he could only smile and chuckle about.
Goodell isn't laughing, however. He's so dismayed by the poor quality of
preseason play that he wants to reduce the number of exhibition games from four
per team to three or possibly even two, and expand the regular season to 17 or
Thursday night's game between the Cowboys and the Vikings, the preseason finale
for two teams rated Super Bowl contenders: Only one projected starter from each
club played, linebacker E.J. Henderson for Minnesota and fullback Deon Anderson
for Dallas. A similar script was followed throughout the league, though
spectators paid the same price for these glorified scrimmages as they do for
regular-season tickets; in most cases fans are required to purchase those
preseason seats as part of a full season-ticket package.
More and more of
those preseason tickets, even when paid for, are going unused. The Giants
listed the attendance for their preseason finale against the Patriots as
76,798, but a blindfolded archer could have shot an arrow from midfield and not
hit anyone in the stands. There were a few notable spectators on the sideline,
though: Eli Manning and Tom Brady sat out the game.
modification of the schedule has prompted mixed reactions from players,
coaches, executives and owners. Most coaches prefer the four-game preseason
because it gives them more opportunity to evaluate young and marginal players
(who get the bulk of the preseason playing time and an inordinate amount in the
final exhibition game). Some owners and veteran players support an expanded
regular season because an additional week or two of regular-season games would
presumably increase network television rights fees. (Local stations, rather
than networks, carry most preseason games.) That would add to the total gross
revenues, of which players receive 60%. In other words, more money for owners
change in the number of regular-season games would have to provide a plan for
paying the players for the extra games, including a way to adjust existing
contracts. Currently, players are paid $1,225 per week in the preseason, then
receive 17 weekly paychecks during the regular season. "If you work at The
Gap and they add two more hours to your schedule, you would expect to get two
more hours' worth of pay," says Broncos cornerback Domonque Foxworth, who
is on the 10-member executive committee of the NFL Players Association.
Another concern of
the players is wear and tear. "Are guys going to have to sit out games like
in baseball?" Chargers center and player rep Nick Hardwick wonders.
"It's already a long season. An 18-game regular season? Wow. I think you'd
have to sit a guy down for a week and let him rest, because that is incredibly
long, even with the bye week."
Before Goodell can
make a change—he hopes to do so in time for the 2010 season, though that
appears ambitious—the 32 owners would have to agree (the support appears to be
there), and the NFLPA would have to sign off. The commissioner said that an
expanded regular season will be tied to negotiations with the NFLPA for a new
collective bargaining agreement (the current CBA expires after the 2009 season)
and to talks with the networks (contracts run through at least 2011).
A union official
said recently that its membership is not against expanding the season but wants
to see how the players would benefit. Goodell points to two potential
advantages for the players that would be up for discussion: a reduced
off-season workload and an increase in roster size.