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SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Teams may try to go long(er)

NFL season could be expanded to 17 or 18 games, but players surely would want a bigger piece of the pie.

March 26, 2009|SAM FARMER | ON THE NFL

NFL teams for years have promoted the idea that exhibition games are interesting and meaningful enough to warrant full-price tickets.

Now, even those teams can't say that with a straight face.

NFL owners, who ended their annual March meetings Wednesday in Dana Point, are warming to the idea of dumping one or two weeks of preseason games to expand the regular season to either 17 or 18 games. They could vote on the concept in May, although it likely would be two or three years before any changes take effect.

The rationale: In this sour economy, when coaxing cash-strapped fans into renewing their season tickets will be hard enough, the league needs to do all it can to stay in the good graces of its paying customers -- the people who have been buying those preseason tickets as part of their packages. A month's worth of throw-away games featuring no-name scrubs just isn't going to cut it.

When he met with reporters after closing the meeting, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said these words about exhibition games, something fans have said for years but not so long ago would have been blasphemous in NFL circles:

"A key point is the fans also recognize players they want to see are not in those preseason games. That's why they are not attractive. They want to see those players play."

No one will argue that. The idea is a good one, and long overdue. But it could not come at a more challenging time.

An expanded regular season will require the blessing of the players, who are already gearing up for a big-bucks battle royale. If they're asked to play two more real games, they're going to want real money for it.

Not surprisingly, a spokesman for DeMaurice Smith, incoming executive director of the NFL Players Assn., told the Associated Press his boss wants the interests of the players to be "seriously considered" in all of this.

More regular-season games would mean more TV money, of course, and the players would want their slice of that pie. The current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2011 draft, and the league's top priority now is striking a deal that maintains the labor peace pro football has enjoyed since the 1988 season.

Even if the players were to agree to a longer regular season -- and they certainly would, provided the money is right -- the league would need to make other changes. The off-season would need to be restructured to give teams ample time to prepare for games that count. The league might have to reconsider when it stages the scouting combine and the draft, and it probably would move the Super Bowl to mid-February.

If, say, the regular season were expanded to 17 games, half of the 32 teams would have one extra home game each season. Goodell said one idea would be 17 neutral-site games. That would not only create the possibility of more overseas games, but maybe some in Los Angeles, which hasn't had an NFL team since the Raiders and Rams left after the 1994 season.

Then, there's the physical toll a longer season would exact. That would call for larger rosters, and maybe even a developmental league, about which the league has had some very preliminary discussions.

For now, the possibilities are intriguing. But until the owners and players see eye to eye again, all the talk is just that.

Rules changes

A day after adopting four rules aimed at making the game safer for players, owners voted in favor of several other rules changes.

Beginning this season, plays such as Jay Cutler's non-fumble call in the Denver-San Diego game will be reviewable. Officials will also be able to use review to determine if a loose ball hit the sideline.

On all fumbles and laterals that go out of bounds, the clock will start when the referee signals ready for play.

In years past, a team was awarded a re-kick if its first onside kick was illegal. Now, there are no mulligans; the ball is immediately awarded to the receiving team.

The draft order for playoff teams was reworked so that, regardless of record, a team eliminated earlier in the playoffs gets an earlier pick in the following draft. Under the new rules (which begin in 2010), 8-8 San Diego would pick after 12-4 Indianapolis because the Chargers eliminated the Colts in the playoffs.

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sam.farmer@latimes.com

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