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Let's Play 17
Jim Trotter
September 08, 2008
Commissioner Roger Goodell wants better NFL games in August, and that means expanding the regular season
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September 08, 2008

Let's Play 17

Commissioner Roger Goodell wants better NFL games in August, and that means expanding the regular season

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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.

Commissioner Roger 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 18 games.

Consider last 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.

Goodell's proposed 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 and players.

Any proposed 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.

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