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Many records would be rewritten with expanded regular season

NFL owners have plenty of reasons to think long and hard before deciding whether to add a game or two to the regular season.

There are safety issues -- more games that count mean more chances for players to be injured.

There are financial issues -- if there are more regular-season games, players are expected to seek more compensation. Benefits and free agency also could be impacted, not to mention long-term contracts based on the current 16-game format.

It's a topic that likely needs additional discussion before owners are ready to put it to a vote, which is why no such balloting is expected during the NFL Spring Meeting next week in Florida.

And if there isn't enough potential controversy from a shift to a
17- or 18-game schedule within the next couple of years, here's another thorny question to ponder: What about the record book?

Give a running back two additional games, and it stands to reason that he'd gain more yards ... and that a quarterback would put up bigger passing numbers ... and that a receiver would catch more passes ... and that a defensive end or outside linebacker would have more sacks ... and that a cornerback or safety would have more interceptions.

Before you know it, there would be an all-out assault on records that have been set in 16 games. Career marks presumably would fall as well, perhaps at a greater clip than they previously had.

So, too, would the admiration of what could be perceived as "inflated" statistical accomplishments. Rather than simply marveling at, say, a 2,500-yard rushing season by Adrian Peterson, someone might be inclined to say, "Yeah, sure, but he did it in an 18-game season."

The last 2,000-yard rushing campaign was in 2003 (Jamal Lewis' 2,066 for the Baltimore Ravens). The one before that came in 1998 (Terrell Davis' 2,008 for the Denver Broncos). Former Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders had 2,053 yards in 1997, but that was 13 years after Eric Dickerson set an NFL single-season record with 2,105 with the then-Los Angeles Rams.

If owners go forth with expanding the regular season, is there a chance that new records will be less appreciated than the ones that have been erased? As with just about everything else in sports, it's a matter of opinion.

"A lot of people still believe Jim Brown to be the greatest running back -- and maybe the greatest football player -- in the history of the league, despite the fact that his total numbers have been surpassed," said Steve Hirdt, executive vice president of Elias Sports Bureau, the nation's foremost authority on sports statistics. "I'll always remember, when the subject came up after Brown retired, he said, 'There are only three records (that matter): career, season and game. When I retired, I had them all. End of discussion.'"

Still, history suggests that the credibility of NFL records tends to be fairly resilient when it comes to periodic additions to the regular-season schedule.

For instance, in 1984, when Dickerson broke O.J. Simpson's single-season rushing record of 2,003 yards, there wasn't a whole lot of fury over the fact that his achievement came in 16 games, while Simpson's came in 14 games with the Buffalo Bills.

A large part of that was due to the fact that the league didn't call attention to the two-game difference by placing an asterisk next to Dickerson's mark. The NFL has always followed the approach that a season is a season, unlike Major League Baseball, which initially put an asterisk next to Roger Maris' record 61 home runs in 1961 because it happened through a longer schedule than Babe Ruth's 60-homer season in 1927. MLB later dropped the asterisk.

The last time the NFL expanded its season was in 1978, from 14 to 16 games. An explosion of yards and points followed. But that also was the same time that owners, in an effort to generate more offense, voted to give blockers much more freedom in pass protection and put greater restrictions on defenders in pass coverage.

Adding games certainly has an impact, but perhaps not as much as adjustments in playing rules specifically geared to enhance the performance of one side of the ball or the other. And when it comes to the NFL, most of the help goes to the offense because that's what fills the seats.

"When things change in the rules, then records seem to change," said Joe Horrigan, the Pro Football Hall of Fame's vice president for communications and exhibits. "If you ask Gale Sayers, he'll tell you that one of the most important changes in football history was moving the hash marks (in 1975) because rushing records went crazy after that (as more plays could be run to both sides without the influence of where the ball was placed between downs)."

Although record-holders no doubt will be uneasy about the prospect of seeing their names slip down the all-time lists, historians put less credence in season totals than they do on averages.

"Any sort of serious analysis is done on a per-game or per-play basis," Hirdt said, pointing to Brown's 6.4-yards-per-carry average (when he ran for a then-record 1,863 yards in 1963), which was better than Simpson's 6.0 in '73 and Dickerson's 5.6 in '84.

Dickerson's single-season rushing record, which has stood for a quarter of a century, actually could be safe for many more years to come. Given the trend of teams rotating running backs to keep them as fresh as possible, there's reason to believe that a single back won't see a dramatic increase in carries through a longer season.

However, the single-season records that the Miami Dolphins' Dan Marino set in 1984 when he threw for 5,084 yards and the New England Patriots' Tom Brady set in 2007 when he threw 50 touchdown passes certainly could be in jeopardy because teams rarely rotate quarterbacks. The same also could be true for Brett Favre's career standard for passing yards (though another un-retirement by the quarterback could put it further out of reach for the foreseeable future) and Emmitt Smith's all-time mark for rushing yards.

If that's the case, there will no doubt be some debates because, well, that's what fans do. And maybe it's something NFL owners will think about, if not talk about, as they weigh the pros and cons of going from a 16-game season to a 17- or 18-game season. As Hirdt pointed out, "It's sort of a tie-yourself-up-in-knots discussion."

My sense is that, for a variety of reasons, the subject of expanding the schedule already has tied plenty of knots.

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