EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Sooner or later, the NFL will go to an expanded regular-season schedule, not because it makes sense but because there's too much support for it not to happen. Commissioner Roger Goodell is for it. Owners are for it. And fans are for it.
Only one problem: Nobody checked with the players.
So I checked for them. I ran the idea of an 18-game schedule through the New York Giants' locker room after Thursday's minicamp practice, seeing if players embraced it more than, say, Ray Lewis or Tom Brady, and the NFL won't like what I found. Players not only were skeptical about an expanded schedule, they were downright opposed to it.
|Two more regular-season games? Justin Tuck isn't thinking in that direction, thanks. (Getty Images)|
The NFL disagrees, which is one reason it is pushing the idea. Look, not many people like sitting through four preseason games where starters become part-time participants, so Goodell and league owners decided to do something about it. And what they decided is that they would like to exchange two preseason games for two regular-season starts, and do it by 2012.
At least, that's what they told the NFL Players Association at this week's collective bargaining talks in a move that produced immediate fallout -- and I'm not talking about the New York Giants.
The Ravens' Lewis criticized the plan, telling the NFLPA website that players "are not machines" -- a sentiment that was echoed a day later in the Giants' locker room. The overwhelming concern there was injuries, with players fearful that a longer season means more injuries and shorter careers. You can see why: Coaches who can afford to coast the last week of the regular season don't rest starters because they want to look at their backups; they rest them for fear of injuries that could impair their playoff chances, and Wes Welker, please step forward.
But the league insists that it has done its research, with Green Bay president Mark Murphy -- a member of the league's negotiating team -- saying this week that an NFL study showed that "the injury rate does not increase over the course of a season." Maybe, but color the Giants skeptical. On second thought, make that incredulous.
"You see what are our old-timers are going through now?" asked Tuck. "Now you add two more regular-season games to the end of the year when your body is already beat up and when the stakes are still high? We have that gladiator persona about ourselves where even though our bodies are hurt we're still going to go out there and bang around those last two games. That can be tough.
"I've been through seasons where you play 22 games, and you need the whole offseason to get your bearings back because of the pain and suffering you went through. There are a lot of things you can say positive and negative about (an expanded schedule), but I don't see how it's beneficial to the players."
OK, let's try money. More regular-season games mean more revenue, and the NFL's pitch is that everybody profits -- and, yes, I mean that literally -- from the experience. But players aren't buying there, either. As Tuck said, "It increases the pool for players' salaries, but it also increases the risk of players' injuries." Given the choice, I know where players are going ... or I know where these players are going.
"It's hard enough to get through 16 [games]," said center Shaun O'Hara, the Giants' player representative, "and that's our No. 1 concern -- the injury factor. I think everybody knows the injury rate in the NFL is 100 percent. There isn't a player who hasn't been injured. It's not a matter of 'if.' It's a matter of 'when.' So if you tell the players that you're going to increase their opportunities for injury, of course, we're all very hesitant to commit to that."
But the NFL isn't telling them that. In fact, it's telling them quite the opposite. More games do not mean more hardship, and it has the figures to prove it. But it's the players who suffer the injuries, and, pardon me, but it's easy to see where they're coming from. They're the ones who have to get out of bed on Monday morning. I mean, more games mean more hits, right? And don't more hits produce injuries?
I understand what the NFL is saying -- that the rate of injuries won't increase just because the number of games does ... and I have no reason to question their study. But there are too many injuries as it is, and if players are concerned the NFL should be, too.
"I think everything is [about] leverage right now," said O'Hara. "[An 18-game schedule] is something they stress they really want. But if you look at it you know why they want the games -- because it will increase revenues.
"From the business side of the game that's what it's all about -- growing the revenue. We understand that. But we're not going to do that at the expense of us, the players. They've said, OK, here's what they want. Now it's an opportunity for us to find out what we want."
What they want is the game as it is now. O'Hara emphasized the value of a four-game preseason for undrafted players like himself, trying to prove they can play at an NFL level. Moreover, he said it allows the injured time to get healthy for the regular season. If some guy, for instance, bruises a quad or strains a hamstring in training camp, he has a month to heal, where with a two-game preseason he might not. And isn't this about putting the best product on the field?
"There are just a lot of concerns that players are going to have issues with," said Tuck. "Injuries. Money. Rosters. Contracts. A lot of different things you can throw out there.
"The game is constantly changing, and I guess you have to embrace that fact. But this is one part of it where I'd like to see us stay the same. How about we leave it like it is? What's wrong with it right now?"
Not much, except the commissioner and owners seem dead set on overhauling the preseason, which is fine except the NFL isn't going to sacrifice one or two preseason games without compensation. So someone has to come up with a solution, and someone just did. The league will turn exhibition games into regular-season games, increase fan interest while at the same time increasing revenue and -- voila! -- everyone lives happily ever after.
Except for one thing: Someone should've checked with the players.
"With all due respect," said O'Hara, "just because Mr. Goodell wants it doesn't mean it should happen. The one thing you have to look at is the players. You can't say, ‘We care about the players, but now we're going to make you play more games.' You can't talk out of both sides of your mouth.
"[Injuries] are our No. 1 concern, and we hope it's their No. 1 concern as well. Mr. Goodell's job is to create more revenue. That's his job, to increase revenue for the NFL, and he's doing everything he can to do that. This is an idea that he has ... a concept ... and when you pitch that to the owners and say, 'Hey, look, here's a chance to make more revenue,' it makes sense to them. But it's our job to show them why it doesn't make sense to us."
I think they just did.