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NFL Mulls 18-Game Schedule

Tagliabue says competitive reasons, not recent injuries, would prompt study into the change.

September 07, 2003|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The NFL, revisiting an idea that has been proposed several times in recent years, might look deeper into expanding the regular season from 16 to 18 games, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in a newspaper report published Saturday.

"We need to focus on whether or not two games are sufficient to get a team ready for the season," Tagliabue told the Washington Post.

The proposal to investigate the feasibility of a longer season would be made at a league meeting in Chicago in late October. The 2005 season would be the earliest such a change could be made.

As it is, teams play either four or five exhibition games, and the preseason has been under heightened scrutiny this summer because of injuries suffered by high-profile quarterbacks Michael Vick of Atlanta and Chad Pennington of the New York Jets.

Tagliabue said the change would be examined by team owners for competitive reasons, not in response to the recent rash of injuries.

"Many clubs feel that just in the past five years the off-season training and preparation has changed dramatically for the better," Tagliabue said. "Some clubs feel that their coaching staffs are as intensively involved in preparing to play football in April and May and June as they are in September and November. Some of these clubs are concluding that for many players, including the top players, the second and third preseason games are critical, while the first and fourth games are merely complementary."

Tampa Bay General Manager Rich McKay, co-chairman of the league's competition committee, polled coaches four years ago on the idea of reducing the number of exhibition games. The sentiment to keep the status quo was "almost universal," McKay said.

"We've talked about this issue before and it's one that's going to require a lengthy discussion because of all the factors involved," McKay said. "Factors such as those involving the union, television and the competitive aspects of the game."

Injuries aside, exhibition games are a bonanza for team owners because spectators pay full price for tickets, concessions and parking, while players receive a flat fee for each of the games -- $900 for veterans and $725 for rookies. Players receive weekly paychecks during the course of the season, including during the bye week.

The league's television contracts expire after the 2005 season, so presumably the networks would have input as to the wisdom of extending the regular season. Television consultant Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports, said beginning the season in late August, as opposed to early September, would be problematic because that's when many U.S. families are on vacation and TV ratings are lowest. Starting the regular season a week earlier and eliminating the extra week between the championship games and the Super Bowl is another possibility, although there isn't always a two-week gap between those games, anyway.

"I've heard concerns every which way," Raider executive Bruce Allen said. "One of the concerns we have is the wear and tear of an 18-game season. It's the most physically demanding sport in history."

The way Allen sees it, the four exhibition games are critical for making the hard choices when teams pare their rosters from 80 to 53 players. He said he isn't sure how that evaluation would be conducted with just two exhibition games.

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