ATLANTA | NFL owners are eager to increase the regular season from 16 to 18 games.
The players aren’t so sure.
During a five-hour meeting at a posh hotel in downtown Atlanta, the push to add two more games to the regular season picked up steam Wednesday — at least among those who sign the checks.
“I think it’s a win-win all around,” said Bob Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots.
The owners also unanimously approved Stan Kroenke’s proposal to purchase majority ownership of the St. Louis Rams, assuming he turns over control of two other teams he owns — the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche — to his son.
Kroenke owns 40 percent of the downtrodden Rams and exercised his right to purchase the rest of the team from the Rosenbloom family for a reported $750 million.
“Obviously, all of us know and respect Stan,” commissioner Roger Goodell said. “He’s been a terrific owner in the NFL and we’re confident he will continue to be a great owner.”
Kroenke must turn over operational and financial control of the Nuggets and Avalanche to his 30-year-old son, Josh, by the end of the year. He must give up his majority stake in the teams by December 2014 to meet NFL rules against cross-ownership of franchises in other NFL cities.
But talks on the expanded season dominated most of the meeting.
Goodell pointed out that the league already has the right to impose an 18-game schedule — and keep four preseason games for each team — under the current labor agreement with the players. But that contract expires after this season, and it’s clear the expanded schedule will be a central issue in talks on a new collective bargaining agreement.
The owners would like to keep the season at 20 weeks, reducing the number of preseason games from four to two.
“We want to do it the right way for everyone, including the players, the fans and the game in general,” Goodell said. “There’s a tremendous amount of momentum for it. We think it’s the right step.”
The owners held off on voting on a specific proposal that could be presented to the players union. Among the issues that still must be resolved: when to start the expanded regular season, possible roster expansion to cope with more games, and changes in training camp and offseason routines to come up with ways for evaluating younger players who wouldn’t have as many preseason games to make an impression.
“We want to continue to address a variety of issues before putting together a specific proposal, which our negotiating team will provide to the union’s negotiating team,” Goodell said. “There’s tremendous support for it. Almost all the questions, all the discussions, are how to do it in a way that’s fan friendly.”
Around the NFL, however, many players questioned the wisdom of making an already grueling season even longer. At the very least, they want more money — and several proposed changes in the rules governing injured players, or adding an extra bye week to deal with the grind.
“With 16 games, every game is important and therefore the fans are very into it, the stadiums are packed because they know if their team loses, it pushes them further and further away from making the playoffs,” Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer said. “I think if you go to 18, each game kind of loses a little bit of its significance.”
The players clearly expect to be receive a bigger chunk of the multi-billion-dollar NFL pie if they’re going to be putting their bodies on the line in two more games that count.
“Obviously the players want to be compensated for two more games,” San Francisco 49ers linebacker Matt Wilhelm said. “That’s the one thing the players have to get met.”
They are also concerned about an increased risk of injuries and fret that it could shorten their careers or increase the number of health problems they endure after retirement.
“I would vote to eliminate two preseason games and then keep it at a 16-game season because the longer you’re out there playing, the more your body breaks down,” Chicago Bears tight end Desmond Clark said. “When you get into December, you’re like walking zombies. You can’t feel your joints.”
Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita said the timing of the proposal is odd, considering the owners want the players to accept a smaller share of the revenue in the next labor agreement.
“They are asking you to play more games and put yourself at more risk, and they are also asking us to take a pay cut,” he said. “That’s a lot to ask. All those things don’t make a whole lot of sense. We need to sit down and talk through it all and find out what it is they’re really trying to do and see if it makes sense or not.”
But Kraft said the expanded season is the most obvious step to bring in more money while the economy is struggling.
“I really think going to an 18-game season is critical to us getting a labor deal,” he said. “There’s not a lot ways in this economic environment we can generate incremental revenues. That’s the best way.
“The other thing,” he added, “our fans have said pretty loud and clear they’d like us to have fewer preseason games.”
Several players and coaches have pointed out that having only two preseason games would likely make it more difficult for fringe players to get enough of a look to make the team.
Already, teams have been experimenting with joint workouts in training camp, believing those sessions could help replace the shorter preseason. This year, for instance, the Atlanta Falcons worked out with both New England and Jacksonville.
“If it was a two-game preseason, then the starters are going to see most of that time because they’ve got to get ready for the season, so if you’re third string, good luck,” said Indianapolis linebacker Gary Brackett, the Colts’ defensive captain. “When I was a rookie, I needed every bit of those four games.”
But some figure it’s a foregone conclusion that the owners will get their way.
“Personally, I don’t see how it helps the game, or the quality of the game,” said Barry Cofield, a defensive tackle for the New York Giants. “But if they demand it, they will probably get it.”
AP Sports Writers Joe Kay in Cincinnati, Andrew Seligman in Chicago, Tom Canavan in East Rutherford, N.J., Janie McCauley in San Francisco, Tom Withers in Cleveland, Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis, Michael Marot in Indianapolis and Joseph White in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.