Plan to expand regular season quickly coming to fruition

DANA POINT, Calif. -- Let's talk about quality.

That's a word NFL commissioner Roger Goodell frequently tossed around when discussing the possibility (or shall we say likelihood?) of the NFL adding one or two regular-season games by 2011.

Few would argue that the overall quality of the NFL product is good, if not great. Stadium attendance and television ratings tell us that people love watching the games -- that it is the best and most entertaining reality show around.

Setting it straight

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From September through February.

August is a very different story. August is when the NFL product takes on the look and feel of a cheap knockoff. You recognize the game. You recognize the uniforms. But almost nothing else resembles what we all know as the NFL -- except, of course, for the price of admission and all other game-related costs.

The stadiums are mostly empty, and with good reason. Fans don't want to pay to see games that don't count, and they don't want to watch players they know won't be on their favorite team's roster after August. Oh, sure, the starters might be on the field for a series or two in a preseason game, but they usually spend the bulk of the night watching from the sidelines. The coach's primary mission is to keep those players healthy for September, when the real games begin to be played.

Even hard-core fans, the ones who truly care about the competition for the backup left guard spot, don't feel compelled to watch preseason games in person or on TV. They appreciate good football, and preseason football is almost never good. With lineups dominated by players who have little chance of making the final roster, the play is sloppy. Too many penalties. Too many turnovers. Too little entertainment.

NFL fans will tell you that they love most everything about the league. They'll also tell you what they don't love: preseason games. Many fans will tell you that they hate them, plain and simple. And since becoming commissioner in 2006, Goodell has heard more complaints about the preseason than he has about anything else concerning his league.

Even in the best of economic times, an NFL game isn't easy to afford. In the current financial climate, consumers are more discriminating than ever in their pursuit of quality products. When they buy what is being sold as the highest level of football competition, they expect to get it. For four weeks (and, in some cases, five), they don't, and they feel cheated.

So the idea of taking the whole 20-game package that comprises the preseason and regular season and moving a game or two from August to December or January makes perfect sense. Instead of 16 regular-season games, there will be 17 or, more likely, 18 because the even number would create a balanced schedule. It will result in a major improvement in quality because it will mean the NFL is selling more games that matter and fewer that don't.

"There's a very strongly held view, internally and I believe with our fans, that they don't believe the preseason games are up to our standards," Goodell said. "And by modifying the 20-game structure and swapping out preseason games for regular-season games, that's a very positive change for our fans and improves the quality of what we're doing."

This also will go a long way toward generating greater revenue for the league, which is a key topic because of looming negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association.

Players obviously will be expected to receive more money for more games played in the regular season, when their contracts take effect. And owners are looking at covering those costs while also having an avenue for financial growth.

The vote for such a change could take place as early as May. Before it does, however, Goodell wants to talk more about it within the league and with new NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith. There also will be conversations with the NFL's network-TV partners, who clearly would love to broadcast more games that mean something because those draw far better ratings than the ones that don't.

In the end, I fully expect the league to have a longer regular season. The commissioner wants it. The owners want it. And the players ultimately will have to come aboard with it because the fans will demand it.

"Players and everyone else have to understand that, in this environment, we have to do everything we can to improve the quality of what we do," Goodell said. "If the NFL's name is attached to it, it should be high quality. Preseason games do not represent that quality. That's clear.

"It gives us an opportunity to grow the game, to grow revenues in the game, and to hopefully broaden the appeal of the game on a global basis, which the players will benefit from."

Make no mistake. This won't be an easy process. The fact that it is expected to become a key part of the labor talks makes the issue complicated because, in one form or another, one side probably will use it to get something out of the other.

There also are some important questions that need answers:

» Will a longer regular season result in more injuries and a severe drain on the legitimate NFL talent pool? (Owners clearly had that in mind this week when they passed several rules that address player safety).

» Will a shorter preseason allow teams to sufficiently prepare for the real thing? (Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher, co-chairman of the NFL's competition committee, said teams "have learned over the years to get a lot more done on the practice field now than we have in the past" in training camp. Goodell mentioned that the NFL is looking into the possibility of creating a developmental league that would play during the NFL's offseason and at setting up an in-season training camp for unsigned players who would work out, scrimmage and be on call for any team needing to fill a roster spot).

» Will an extra game or two at the end of the regular-season schedule merely result in meaningless games being played then, between teams that have already secured playoff spots or are long out of the postseason picture, rather than in August, when fewer people are watching? (Goodell acknowledges that is a distinct possibility yet believes a regular-season game with no consequences still is a better product than any preseason game).

Earlier in the offseason, Goodell asked the competition committee to study the potential ramifications of a longer regular season. He did not ask that body to offer a recommendation of whether or not it is a good idea. But there are plenty of skeptics in that group, and the message they delivered to the commissioner just before the start of the meetings was as follows: "We can do this and do this effectively."

"Depending on whether it's 17 or 18, there are certain things they might want to look into to make sure that the quality of games stays strong," Goodell said. "But I think what we heard very firmly is that it can get done and it can get done and continue to build the quality of our game."

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