NFL preseason expected to be shortened, with expanded playoffs more likely than 18-game season

The NFLPA remains adamantly opposed to an 18 game schedule.

Jakobi Meyers is pictured and quarterback Tom Brady is in the backround left. The New England Patriots held a practice session on the fields behind Gillette Stadium as they continued preparation for Thursday night's final pre season game. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
Jakobi Meyers is pictured and quarterback Tom Brady warm up before practice. –(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

The fourth full week of NFL preseason games comes Thursday night, with two teams, the Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos, playing their fifth after participating in the Hall of Fame Game to start this month. That proliferation of preseason games is, more than ever, likely to become a thing of the NFL’s past.

As negotiations continue on a new collective bargaining agreement between representatives of the league’s team owners and the NFL Players Association, people familiar with the sport’s inner workings say they have become increasingly convinced that the preseason will be shortened in the not-too-distant future.

That revenue-decreasing step probably would have to be accompanied by a revenue-boosting measure, either the lengthening of the regular season to 17 or 18 games per team, or the expansion of the playoff field from 12 to 14 teams. While some owners have not given up on getting players to agree to an 18-game season, the union’s ongoing resistance to 18 games has turned the likely focus to an expanded set of playoffs, according to those people with knowledge of the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the confidentiality of the negotiations.

It is unclear, however, whether owners might push for a 17-game regular season if the NFLPA remains adamantly opposed to 18 games, and if players would be any more receptive to that alternative.

As for the preseason, it is becoming ever more certain that it will be cut to two or three games per team. One person close to the situation said it is “safe to say that the preseason will be shortened at some point.” Others within the sport echoed that sentiment.

Owners have the right, in their view, to shorten the preseason and expand the playoffs without the union’s consent. But it appears, at least at this point, that consideration of such major changes to the sport’s calendar is taking place within the context of bargaining between the owners and the NFLPA.

The league has acknowledged the lack of quality of preseason games for close to a decade. In the negotiations that preceded the 10-year labor agreement between the league and union struck in 2011, owners proposed shortening the preseason to two games per team and lengthening the regular season to 18 games, but abandoned the idea after the NFLPA rejected the proposal on player-safety grounds.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has continued to concede in recent months that preseason games are not up to the league’s standards.

“I feel what we should be doing is always to the highest quality, and I’m not sure preseason games meet that level right now,” Goodell said at a June charity even in Buffalo, according to the Associated Press. “I’m not sure, talking with coaches, that four preseason games is necessary any more to get ready for a season to evaluate players, develop players. There are other ways of doing that, and we’ve had a lot of discussions about that.”

Teams have become increasingly willing to leave standout players, particularly star quarterbacks, on the sideline for all or nearly all of the preseason, minimizing or eliminating injury risks. Many games this preseason have been played in nearly empty stadiums.

Teams charge season ticket holders for preseason games, although in some cases the costs of those games are reduced through variable pricing plans. Owners would lose revenue by cutting the preseason and would be unlikely to agree to a reduction of the preseason without an accompanying revenue-enhancing measure.

That measure, to many owners, should be an 18-game season, which has been resurfaced during these CBA negotiations. A person on the players’ side said it’s “not a secret that NFL owners want more games.”

Some owners point out that increased revenue mean more income for players, who receive a share of those revenue under the sport’s salary cap system. Owners seem willing to increase roster sizes to try to get players to agree to a longer regular season. A proposal to limit each individual player to participating in 16 games in an 18-game season does not appear to have widespread support on either side. But some owners also seem prepared to make concessions to players in other areas, such as the sport’s marijuana policy and Goodell’s authority in player discipline.

Still, players and NFLPA leaders have continued to express strong public opposition to an 18-game season. The retirements of standout players such as New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck before their 30th birthdays could reinforce the notion that the sport already takes an often-unmanageable toll on players’ bodies even without the regular season being lengthened.

But an expanded set of playoffs almost certainly would be more palatable to players, given that players would be asked to play only two additional games.

Under the proposal, seven teams in each conference would qualify for the postseason instead of the current six. One team in each conference, rather than the current two, would receive an opening-round playoff bye. That would make for six first-round playoff games leaguewide (three in each conference) instead of the current four, one of which might be played on a Monday night. The two additional playoff games probably would be enticing to networks in the NFL’s next set of negotiations for TV rights deals.

It’s not known if expanding the playoffs would preclude the owners from seeking a 17th regular season game from players. That probably would involve each team playing one game per season at a neutral site, perhaps in another country.

The sport’s current CBA runs through the 2020 season. The league and the union have gotten an early start on bargaining for a new deal, trying to avoid a damaging work stoppage like the owners’ lockout of the players that preceded the 2011 agreement.

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