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Do players or owners have the most leverage when discussing 18 game season expansion?

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When it comes time for NFL owners and the NFLPA to reach a new collective bargaining agreement in 2021, who holds the cards with regard to expanding the regular season schedule?

New Orleans Saints v New York Jets Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

It’s no secret, NFL owners want more meaningful games in a season. More games means more money. The Wall Street Journal estimates the league and NFLPA could net an additional $2.5 Billion by extending the regular season to 18 games.

As players and owners share league revenues, one might think both would jump at the chance to make more money. However, that’s simply not the case as most players have overwhelmingly scoffed at the idea of playing more games no matter the financial windfall.

Players are wising up to the emotional and physical costs of playing professional football. The recent retirement by the ColtsAndrew Luck, who is yet to turn 30, perfectly exemplifies this growing trend.

When the 49ersChris Borland retired after a standout rookie season over four years ago, many fans couldn’t understand his decision to walk away from the $2 million that remained on his rookie contract. Many forget that he had recently replaced Patrick Willis, who also retired relatively early at the age of 30 due to injury concerns.

Players are educating themselves more on the effects of head trauma, and no matter how many or few concussions they have sustained, the litany of injuries to their entire bodies is enough to give them pause when discussing a lengthened regular season.

“The conversation around 18 games is absurd, especially when the league is talking about player safety,” Borland said. “Late in the season, when teams are still playing Thursday night games, the locker room looks like a trauma ward.”

Another important fact for players to weigh out is whether the extra money is even worth the risk of playing two more regular season games per year. According to NFLPA estimates, the average NFL career could drop from 3.4 years to 2.8 years with the addition of two more games.

That drop may seem negligible to some, but it’s extremely impactful when the minimum required service time for players to receive a pension and long-term health benefits is three years.

Owners are effectively telling players they can make more money if they play a couple more games, without telling players most of them won’t last long enough to reap those financial benefits.

Executive Director of the NFLPA DeMaurice Smith said it plainly, “If a coal miner is willing to spend more time in the hole, does it likely result in more money? Yeah. Is that a good thing for him as a person? Probably not. That’s the question nobody confronts. It’s easy to say it’s more money. But is it good for us? The answer is no.”

One compromise owners have been trying to float to players is getting rid of two preseason games and replacing them with two regular season games. This is where I fear the players may have lost leverage recently.

In the past, preseason games were more valuable to coaching staffs for evaluating their roster. The third preseason game, in particular, was thought to be the most important “dress rehearsal” in which starters often played the whole first half before ceding the second half to players fighting for a final roster spot.

After watching the Saints preseason matchup against the Jets this past weekend, however, I realized that’s simply not the case anymore. Drew Brees played only eight snaps before leaving the game for good.

He didn’t play at all in the first or second preseason games. After putting on an offensive clinic in his short time in the third game, he’s most likely not playing in the fourth game either.

In fact, Brees, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas were all sitting comfortably on the bench with 11:39 remaining in the first quarter, never to return. I noticed Brees played far less this preseason than some in the past and he wasn’t the only one. Across the league, star players played little if at all over the past few weeks.

Head coach Sean Payton explained why veterans like Brees don’t seem to need preseason games as much as they used to. “I think it’s different for players like him who have had the experience but are getting plenty of reps during the week.”

It appears coaches don’t need preseason games to evaluate the top end of the roster any more, and four games of backups playing most of the time just isn’t as exciting.

I wonder if owners have been salivating while watching the NFL preseason this year. With notable holdouts like Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon missing the entire preseason coupled with sporadic appearances by stars from every NFL team, preseason has become a semi-boring melange of mediocrity.

Only hard core fans can stomach sixteen quarters of little known fringe players fighting for the last 10-15 spots on any given roster. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed watching the backup quarterback battle between Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill along with the sudden emergence of undrafted kick returner Deonte Harris.

But, NFL owners have to love seeing the preponderance of starters resting during this preseason. If starters sit out more during preseason, fans may start clamoring for more meaningful games just like the owners already have.

The players who put their lives on the line each week could be losing leverage in future CBA talks by taking better care of themselves during the weeks when games don’t matter. It’s a delicate and diminishing catch-22 for NFL players in my opinion.

Understanding that the current preseason is not a great product, Packers chief executive Mark Murphy floated another compromise to the proposed 18 game schedule. “Our players don’t need four games and it seems like fewer starters are playing in them. Maybe another way to do this is to add one neutral site game and one international one for every team, so we can use this to grow the game.”

Yet another idea owners have proposed is lengthening the regular season to 18 games but only requiring players to play in 16 of them. This, in my opinion, is by far the worst and most half-baked compromise that should never be agreed to by the NFLPA.

First of all, how would teams decide which games their players are going to miss? In the NBA, fans are livid when they pay for tickets and the players they came to see are healthy scratches. NFL fans would be even more pissed. There are far fewer games in the NFL than the NBA and sometimes years go by before a certain desirable matchup occurs again.

Additionally, what the hell would teams do about maintaining a competitive roster from top to bottom if they have to worry about positions like quarterback, kicker, punter, or long-snapper only being able to play 16 of the 18 games?

NFL coaches have wanted larger rosters, but this change would effectively shrink their roster by having to carry multiple players at positions formerly manned by one or two players max. Saints star defensive end, Cam Jordan went even further to explain his distaste for a longer season while appearing on the Rich Eisen Show.

“As a competitor,” Jordan continued, “as (an) ultimate competitor, I never want to be off the field. So, you’re not going to tell me I’m going to be out of a game, especially when I have my brothers that we’re fixing to go through training camp with, or people that you you bleed, sweat, and win with. You’re not going to tell me I’m going to be out for two whole games. It’s not going to happen.”

One thing is for sure, the NFLPA is doing more than ever to keep players informed on the topics that will affect their professional futures. Players who care about their long term health aren’t going to willingly sign up for an 18 game season, but hopefully their increased level of protection during preseason games doesn’t backfire on them in the 2021 CBA negotiations.