Who's up for more football?
The NFL would like to expand the regular season to 18 games and eliminate two preseason games by 2012. Seems like a no-brainer.
But at such a politically charged time, the NFL Players Association isn't willing to concede anything. There are reasons against lengthening the regular season. Injuries are prominent in the discussion, and players would like to be paid for playing additional games.
If the NFL wants an "enhanced season," as it's calling the proposal, then the players would like "enhanced compensation."
Beyond that, however, there are many reasons to debate the idea. That's why ESPN.com's Tim Graham and Bill Williamson are squaring off over it.
Tim Graham: Let's waste no time here, Bill, and get to a fundamental aspect about the proposed expanded season. We can deliberate on injuries and tradition and whether the NFL needs to increase revenues -- and we will. But the root of the 18-game concept is that fans want more meaningful action and less preseason silliness. Season-ticket holders must pay full price to watch undrafted rookies and retreads with no shot of making the roster run around in exhibitions. Those games are irrelevant. What matters is the enthusiasm NFL fans have for getting the season started as early as possible. Take a look at the message boards and listen to the talk shows. They're frothing in anticipation of the upcoming season. More and sooner is better.
Bill Williamson: OK, slick, let's get this right: We're supposed to see the greatest sport of mankind completely change its world because fans shouldn't have to pay for parking during the preseason? I totally agree the preseason is a waste of time after the first two games. But cutting back the preseason to add two games to the regular season -- risking further injury and mucking up the tradition of the game -- just doesn't make any sense. Cut the preseason to two games, keep the 16-game regular-season slate and be done with it. That's a win-win to me.
TG: You know darn well lopping off two preseason games won't cut it with the owners, especially guys like Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft and Woody Johnson. Those games are moneymakers for the individual teams because they can sell local broadcast rights and advertising without having to share with the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars. That kind of cash grab can't evaporate without a trade-off. Two more regular-season games increase revenue streams for all 32 teams. As for your contention it would completely change the greatest sport of all time, I disagree. The fact the game is so remarkable is why we should be able to watch more of it.
BW: Tim, you hit on two points that are going to be the reasons we ultimately end up seeing an 18-game regular season: revenue and fan base. Roger Goodell is a fine commissioner. He is a visionary. He is going to capitalize on the country's absolute rabid desire for the NFL. Fans will jump at the chance to see an 18-game regular-season slate (two more weeks of beer and chicken wings is admittedly appealing), and the owners will bathe in more money. But that doesn't make it right. Sometimes, enough is enough, and Goodell is going to be messing with a good thing. The players are the product, and they are going to suffer because of this. Then, in turn, the game is going to suffer. Who wins there?
TG: You just mentioned chicken wings and beer. I can think of two winners already.
BW: Tim, I think we can both agree the toughest task for any NFL team to navigate a 16-game season is staying healthy. Nothing ruins a Super Bowl dream like a couple ripped-up knees. Going to an 18-game season will only increase season-ending injuries. Look, it's a month before training camp starts and there already have been several players lost for the season, including Willie Colon, Limas Sweed and Thomas Davis. It's a nasty game. Why make these guys risk further injury and further dampen their teams' Super Bowl hopes by playing two more games in the regular season?
TG: I agree additional games will escalate the likelihood a given player gets seriously hurt. But some injuries are going to happen no matter what. New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker, for example, crumpled to the Reliant Stadium turf while making a cut in the regular-season finale. He wasn't touched. Who's to say he wouldn't have suffered the same injury the following Wednesday at practice?
BW: Right, injuries happen all the time. That's my point. Why increase the season by 14 days and give players 14 more chances to get hurt in a game or in a practice? In an 18-game world, a team would have to play a minimum of 21 games to win a Super Bowl. It's currently 19 games. It may be only two more games, but that is a big difference down the stretch. It would be physically and mentally draining for players to wake up Dec. 1 and realize they have two extra games to play to reach their ultimate goal.
TG: Wake up on Dec. 1 and then realize they have two extra games? Will the expanded schedule make comas more prevalent? The players, coaches and training staffs will prepare their players for the extra games from the start of the offseason conditioning program. Maybe, for once, organized team activities will become truly voluntary. Subtract some of those workouts. But there are possible in-season remedies too. I understand players will get beaten up with the accumulation of hits and strains. So return to a two-bye schedule, increase the roster size or do away with game-day inactives to give a team more players to use. The NFL also is talking about another developmental league to replace NFL Europa. That would help improve the quality of substitute players.
BW: The 16-game slate has been in play for 32 years, and it's working great. Every Sunday in the NFL is an event. Even in Detroit and Oakland, where the losses have been suffocating, game day is a cherished occasion. That's because there are only 16 game days a year. An NFL Sunday is a rarity. I love baseball. But if I miss my San Francisco Giants (who are killing me these days, by the way) on a busy Tuesday night, I know I'll have Wednesday to catch them. That's not the case with the NFL. Sundays in the fall are must-see NFL days. It also makes the season more urgent for the participants. "Don’t mess up one of these 16 chances" is often the message from NFL coaching staffs to players. Increasing the number of games would take away from the game. What's next? Twenty games? Twenty-four games? Stop the madness. The football season is compact and intense. Why change it?
TG: NFL games are events not because of how many there are, but because your team plays once per week. Fans revel in or grouse about the last game from the final whistle until about Wednesday morning, when they start looking forward to the upcoming opponent. The tension rises steadily as they talk trash about what's going to happen, they set their fantasy lineups, they maybe wager a few bucks, they attend a tailgate party and then settle into their seats for the opening kickoff. It's an unfailing routine. That's why fans go through a hangover the moment the season is over, and why they can't wait for the next season to commence. NFL games would remain an event if we had a 52-game schedule.
BW: Let's not underplay the value of records. There are some stirring records out there that will be broken by the virtue of two extra games. That's not cool. Let baseball corner the market on asterisks. Why should the NFL have to play that game? It's just one more reason why moving to an 18-game slate would damage the integrity of the game. It's just not worth it. My message to Roger Goodell is this: Be happy with what you got. It’s perfect.
TG: Records, schmecords. NFL milestones stood up when the schedule was lengthened to 16 games in 1978. Running backs still target 1,000-yard seasons, but they stopped being special a long time ago. Last year, Fred Jackson hit quadruple digits. He'll be called a 1,000-yard rusher for the rest of his life. Chris Johnson rushed for 2,000 yards, and he was lumped in with O.J. Simpson, who did it in 14 games. Besides, records don't mean nearly as much as they used to because the game itself has changed. Steve Largent retired as the NFL's all-time leading receiver in 1989. Derrick Mason and Larry Centers, a fullback, have more catches, for crying out loud. Eighteen games. Bring it on.