Owners' support for 18-game slate waning

by | National NFL Insider
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Packers president Mark Murphy now says he 'couldn't support a move to 18.' (Getty Images)  
Packers president Mark Murphy now says he 'couldn't support a move to 18.' (Getty Images)  

In what was yet another busy day of sports -- more Penn State, more USA basketball, more NFL signings, too much Dez Bryant -- there was the biggest news that many missed. It was a huge story and might have signaled the end of one of the biggest debates in the history of the NFL.

The moment happened Tuesday in Green Bay. Mark Murphy, the Packers' team president, was asked about the 18-game season during a meeting with stockholders. Once for 18 games, Murphy made a startling about face.

"Now, to be honest with you, I couldn't support a move to 18," Murphy told Packers shareholders, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "I just think with all the focus on the player health and safety, it would be really hard to do that. I would be in support of a move to two and 16. Reduce the number of preseason games. The challenge there obviously is you're losing revenue. On the other end, do you really have enough time to develop younger players if you only have two preseason games?"

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Murphy isn't technically an owner since the Packers are a publicly owned franchise but he has all the responsibilities of one. NFL owners themselves consider Murphy to be one of them.

This was the first time anyone in a current ownership position publicly came out against the 18-game season. Publicly, at least, owners have been unified about the 18-game season as much as they have about almost anything. It has also been one of Roger Goodell's main thrusts since becoming commissioner. It seems every owner has backed him ... until now.

Murphy's words are big and they coincide with what I've heard from a variety of NFL sources during the past few weeks and months. The owners are backing off their 18-game beachhead. Maybe not publicly. Maybe not loudly. But the support for an 18-game season is definitely eroding.

It's possible owners will continue this fight or, at least, the illusion of a fight, but it's been quietly discussed among ownership that an 18-game season might no longer be practical, feasible or legally viable.

Owners are beginning to back off, I'm told, because of the torrent of concussion lawsuits. It's basically a fact that more regular-season games puts NFL players at more physical risk. Thus the NFL, in defending these lawsuits, both in court and in the court of public opinion, can't push for a system that could lead to more concussions while saying they care about players who have already received them.

For the past several years, Goodell and owners have been pushing players hard for an 18-game season while players and the union have steadfastly fought against it. Several league sources say the discussion on the matter between the union and NFL has been practically non-existent for months.

Again, it's possible Murphy is the lone wolf among the ownership pack, but I've been told he's not. It also makes no sense he would be the only one thinking this way, particularly since he was a strong advocate for the 18-game season and also one of the owner hawks during the lockout.

The myriad of concussion lawsuits continues to scare the hell out of the owners. It's not just that the number of players joining them continues to grow, it's the names themselves, as former stars keep joining en masse. Just recently, former Washington Redskins offensive lineman Joe Jacoby sued the league. Jacoby won three Super Bowls and is a member of the 1980s All-Decade team. He's the fifth member of the Redskins' Ring of Fame to sue the NFL. Also this week, five-time Pro Bowl selection Ricky Watters joined the concussion suits.

Before the lawsuits, owners pushed hard for an 18-game season. Said Patriots owner Robert Kraft in 2010: "I think it's a win-win all around."

"We started this with the fans," Goodell told the media during his State of the League address in 2011. "The fans have clearly stated that they don't like the preseason. We have a 20-game format, 16 regular-season games and four preseason games, and the fans have repeatedly said the preseason games don't meet NFL standards. And that is the basis on which we started this 18-game concept, taking two low-quality preseason games and turning them into two high-quality regular-season games."

What once seemed fairly certain to happen now seems less so. Much less so.

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