18-game season coming, but not soon
Hurry up and wait.
That certainly seems to be the approach of the NFL toward the 18-game "enhanced" schedule, as owners met here for several hours Wednesday, ostensibly to approve the sale of the St. Louis Rams to businessman and previous 40 percent shareholder Stan Kroenke, but also to discuss an extended campaign.
The sale to Kroenke, who essentially will buy out the heirs of the late Georgia Frontiere, was a fait accompli. Put the expanded schedule down, too, as a done deal. But it could take a while yet for the fait to connect with the accompli.
"There’s overwhelming support (among the owners) for it," said Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay as he departed the five-hour meeting. "But there are still an awful lot of questions that need to be asked. I think we really need to take a detailed look at it. I’d like to see an (extensive), thorough study of it … but we’re certainly committed, I think, to making it happen."
"People are for it, but … there’s still a long way to go," allowed New England owner Bob Kraft.
According to the current collective bargaining agreement, the league could actually expand its season to 22 games. But it would prefer to reconfigure the schedule — to just two preseason games and 18 regular-season contests — with the players on board with the change.
And while commissioner Roger Goodell speaks politically about how the fans want more contests, and the game needs a switch to continue to grow, the players don’t seem to be in favor of the 18-game card yet. In fact, many of the players to whom The Sports Xchange has spoken in recent weeks require some convincing. And they have questions about issues such as safety, offseason practices and, perhaps most important, finances.
Said Atlanta Falcons safety Erik Coleman, the NFL Players Association representative for the club: "I think the overriding question is this: ‘If it means more money in the coffers of a league that already generates (a reported $8 billion) per year … where is that money going?’ Guys are asking that."
Sources on Wednesday said the NFL, in the CBA negotiations held so far, have offered the players very little in salary enhancements. That may be about to change, with the sessions having taken on a more subdued tenor in an Aug. 15 bargaining discussion, the tone of both sides having become less incendiary and Goodell now seemingly prepared to get down to details.
The commissioner said Wednesday, in his closing media session on the meetings, that he will make a "formal proposal" to the NFLPA, but declined to suggest a timetable for doing so.
Rhetoric aside, the additional games have become a bargaining chip. It’s as if the league holds the hole card in the high-stakes negotiating game with the union, but it isn’t prepared yet to slam its hand on the table.
There will almost certainly be necessary adjustments to roster size, injured reserve rules and guidelines governing offseason workouts and practices, acknowledged Atlanta Falcons team president Rich McKay, who is co-chairman of the influential competition committee.
McKay noted that combined team practices could "become the norm … especially for rookies," endorsing a stance taken by The Sports Xchange in a recent column. Goodell also suggested such workouts could increase in a reduced preseason.
"But we’ve still got three things do (accomplish)," McKay said, "in the preseason: Play the games. Evaluate your players. And develop your young players. We think we have a way to do those things, but it’s going to mean changes."
Representing the competition committee, McKay delineated some of those changes during the session. But neither McKay nor several owners would elaborate on the potential changes that will have to be made.
Except for the March vote to alter the overtime rules for the postseason – which was rammed through while some of the people it most affects, the coaches, were on the golf course in Orlando – the NFL typically moves with glacier-like deliberation. The stall on the 18-game schedule, though, is probably merited, given that it’s essential to have the players’ approve it.
Rest assured, though, given the climate of the meeting, an increased schedule is coming. Unlike his predecessor, Goodell is not one for floating trial balloons to see what might fly with the public. Still, with the fans favoring more regular-season games, Goodell and the owners must persuade the NFLPA and its rank-and-file that 18 games is better for the sport and better for them.
"There’s still some arm-twisting to be done," allowed one NFC owner.
And it won’t be accomplished, Goodell hinted, in time for the 2011 schedule.
"Every day that goes by … it gets harder to implement for 2011," Goodell said. "The focus is more on 2012."