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Dan Daly: In NFL, it’s about growing the pie
Yes, more is sometimes less - but rarely in the case of the NFL. Monday night games? Bring ‘em on. Sunday night games? Absolutely. Thursday night games? What else have we got to do?
The same goes for the proposal, currently being considered by owners, to lengthen the regular season a week or two - and to shorten the increasingly tedious preseason by the same amount. Trade two games of Matt Cassel for two games of Tom Brady? Are you kiddin’ me? I mean, what’s the hitch? Are the games going to pre-empt the cheerleader tryouts on the NFL Network or something?
If the league decides to make the move, it will be long overdue. Ever since clubs began including these practice games in their season-ticket packages, the preseason has been a form of petty theft. Worse, over the years, worry-wort coaches have played their starters less and less - and sometimes kept their biggest stars in street clothes. There may not be a worse value in sports than a ticket to an NFL exhibition game.
That the league has actually acknowledged the issue shows how times have changed. It’s an uncertain world these days, even for an enterprise as fabulously successful as the NFL. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have lasted longer than World War II, and Americans are feeling the pinch of stagnating wages and $4-a-gallon gasoline.
On top of that, the owners have opted out of their labor deal with the players and will have to negotiate a new one after the 2010 season - a season that will be played without the safety net of a salary cap. If the two sides can’t come to an agreement, a lockout is a distinct possibility.
And so the NFL is looking at ways of “growing the pie,” as Patriots owner Bob Kraft puts it. Let’s face it, the league has always been great at pie-growing, whether it has involved adding franchises, increasing the number of TV packages, expanding the playoffs or putting the NFL logo on everything from authentic jerseys to video games. Jacking up prices, of course, is another way to grow the pie, and the owners have certainly done their fair share of that. But in a soft economy, it probably isn’t the best strategy; better to develop new revenue streams, such as playing more regular-season games.
If the NFL is going to do it, though, it should do it right. That is, if it’s going to add two games, it should increase the size of rosters - from 53 to, say, 60. More games, logic tells you, will mean more casualties.
This, by the way, would create 224 more jobs league-wide. Think that might be a good bargaining chip in the labor talks with the players? For one thing, it would enable some veterans to get another year toward their pensions. (And it wouldn’t add that much to payrolls, because the extra players would be making the minimum - or close to it.)
Something else the owners should do: revise the injured-reserve rules. In fact, they should reinstate the old rules. Nowadays, a player who’s put on IR is done for the season; the only alternative is to carry him on the active roster until he’s healthy. But clubs are often reluctant to do the latter because they hate to be a man short - and because injuries can be so unpredictable. What if a short-term absence turns into a long-term absence?
Prior to 1990, though, a player could be reactivated from IR - provided he was on the final 53-man roster and had missed at least four games. Indeed, for a brief period in the ‘80s, a player could be reactivated even if he wasn’t on the Final 53. I like that rule even better. It would have given Jon Jansen a chance, if he was up to it, to come back late in ‘04 after he ruptured his Achilles in the exhibition opener.
The owners tightened up the IR rules because they thought some teams were abusing them, using them to stash players they otherwise would have had to cut. But I’ve always thought the policy was silly, especially in a sport where the injury factor is so high. The NFL - or any league, for that matter - needs its best players on the field as much as possible. A starter who’s ready to go should never have to sit out because of a technicality. Not at these prices.
(And anyway, there’s free agency - the great equalizer - now. Clubs have so many more players available to them in 2008 than they did in 1990. Who cares about a handful of prospects/projects being squirreled away, temporarily, on the injured list?)
As it heads into the Great Unknown, into the uncapped year in 2010 and beyond, the NFL might have to reinvent itself a bit. It has already scrapped its grand experiment in Europe and run into unforeseen problems with cable companies trying to get its network off the ground, and now it might lengthen its season for the first time since 1978 - to keep its profit margin from shrinking and to have a few more dollars to throw at the players during negotiations.
Oversaturation is always a concern for sports leagues, but this is the NFL we’re talking about. Football fans just can’t get enough, it seems - as long as it’s the Real Thing and not some comedy of errors between second-stringers.
This much is certain: Don Shula will be all for the longer season. Heck, he might even lobby for it behind the scenes. Think about it: What team could possibly go 21-0 and push his Perfect Dolphins out of the history books? It just ain’t gonna happen.
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