NFL players and owners have expressed an openness to expanding the playoff field from 12 to 14 teams -- a change that would help offset revenue lost by cutting the preseason to three games, which is considered likely as the sides begin another bargaining session Monday in Chicago, according to numerous sources familiar with the talks.
An expanded playoff format has not yet been formally proposed in bargaining, nor has expanding the regular season to 17 or 18 games, which players continue to oppose. It's possible the preseason could be shortened even without adding regular season or postseason games. But sources say that adding two playoff games remains squarely in the conversation amidst unexpectedly positive dialogue that continued to yield progress in staff meetings last week on secondary issues such as current and retired player benefits, player health, and safety.
Through five formal bargaining sessions, there has yet to be a breakthrough on the issue that matters most: how players and owners will split revenue in the next CBA. And it remains unlikely a deal will be reached before the Sept. 5 opener of the NFL's 100th season, though significant economic concessions in this week's talks could accelerate things quickly.
As one person close to the negotiations put it, NFL owners have yet to show a willingness to make economic concessions, and players feel no reason to do a deal early without economic concessions. Players are guaranteed 47% of total revenue under the current CBA, which is set to expire in March 2021.
So while sources say some issues have crystallized -- such as the expectation of increased minimum salaries, benefiting the middle class of players -- everything is fluid until the deal is done, and figuring out the revenue split will dictate when that can happen.
There is no firm timeline or deadline for agreeing to a new CBA, though there are some key benchmarks ahead. That includes a March election for the NFLPA executive committee, with respected president Eric Winston -- the 12-year veteran tackle who is now retired and will be ineligible to run for a fourth term, barring a surprise comeback -- among those due to cycle off under the union's constitution.
Both sides have incentive to agree to a new CBA sooner than later as the clock ticks down to expiration of the league's TV deals -- a major revenue driver -- ahead of the coming election cycle. But there remains a lot of work to do.