The league and owners relented, scrapping the measure and saying they never would lengthen the regular season without the players’ approval.
Now, with a new set of negotiations on the next collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association at hand, some owners again want the league to try to secure an 18-game season. So the question becomes: Does a longer regular season remain a negotiating non-starter for the players?
The answer is: perhaps.
There are some indications that nothing has changed about the players’ view toward an 18-game season.
“As far as I’m concerned, the attitude about that is exactly the same as it was the last time around,” said one veteran player with knowledge of NFLPA planning.
It’s very clear that an 18-game season is, at best, a tough sell for the owners to the players. Players took the position the last time around that even if the total number of preseason and regular season games is kept at 20, the rigors of playing two additional regular season games far outweighed the benefit of having two preseason games eliminated. The NFLPA was proud of the player-safety measures that it secured in the 10-year CBA struck in 2011, with cutbacks on practice-field hitting and restrictions on offseason practices. That would seem to make it unlikely that the union would change course this time around.
But some on the players’ side say that the NFLPA at least should listen to what the owners might have to say on a longer regular season.
“There’s never anything that’s a non-starter,” veteran agent Peter Schaffer said. “It’s an issue of how clever you can get, how creative you can get, how you can morph the issues.”
Schaffer said he would have player-safety research conducted to see if it would be feasible to have each team play a 17th regular season game (perhaps at a neutral site) while cutting the preseason in half and also giving each team a second bye week during the regular season. That would provide two additional weekends of regular season games.
“I think you would need to do a study on all of this,” Schaffer said in a phone interview. “I’m all for player safety. At the same time, if there’s a way to increase revenues and maintain the same level of player safety, let’s do it.”
NFLPA executives and Eric Winston, the longtime offensive lineman who serves as the union’s president, did not respond to requests for comment.
It’s early in the process. Two seasons remain on the current CBA. Talks are underway, but there’s no indication that the two sides have begun to deal in earnest with the difficult issues. It’s not even clear yet if those owners who want an 18-game season will be able to convince other owners and the league to pursue that intently at the bargaining table.
But there is plenty of incentive for the owners to want an 18-game season. Two additional regular-season games could provide a significant revenue boost, particularly in the sport’s next set of network TV contracts. The owners’ fallback plan if the players balk once again at an 18-game season could be to expand the NFL playoffs from 12 to 14 teams, giving the networks two extra first-round postseason games per year. That could be more palatable to the NFLPA. But some owners are intent on pushing for the 18-game regular season first.
More revenue for the sport automatically means more money for the players under the salary cap system. There are other concessions the owners also could make to attempt to get the players to agree to a longer regular season. Rosters could be expanded, meaning more jobs for players. Some observers have suggested a system by which each team would play 18 games but each player would be limited to 16 games, adding coaching strategy in terms of which players would sit out which games.
Owners seem willing to make concessions to the union on the commissioner’s authority in player discipline and the sport’s marijuana policy, although it’s not clear if those issues would be linked at the bargaining table to an 18-game season.
There is much to play out. Already, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has returned to publicly questioning the need for four preseason games, a possible sign of the league’s intent to pursue a shortened preseason and longer regular season. Will the players be willing to listen to any of it? That remains to be seen.