18-Game Schedule Gone by Wayside?

What a difference a year makes, huh? Last year at this time, the NFL was two weeks into lockout mode, but commissioner Roger Goodell was still pushing hard his personal agenda for an 18-game regular-season schedule.

When the annual league meeting officially commenced here Monday morning, the owners were buoyed by the landmark 10-year agreement with players which was struck eight months ago, and the acrimony of the contentious four months of labor strife had essentially become an afterthought.

And so, apparently, has the initiative for an 18-game schedule.

"Maybe some day, but not now," Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL's influential competition committee, told The Sports Xchange. "And maybe never, who knows? But I don't think I've heard it mentioned for eight months."

Nor has anyone else, it seems.

The concept of two more regular-season games, summarily panned by players who consistently cited the ramped-up safety issues inherent to what was dubbed "the enhanced schedule" in league-speak, may not quite go the way of the single wing or the flying wedge. But it's apparent an issue that Goodell so conspicuously championed and perhaps saw as his legacy - now since seemingly replaced by the focus on safety and protecting the integrity of the game - is at least on the back burner. And perhaps not even on the stove at all.

Not since the 1978 season, when the NFL moved from 14 games to 16, has the schedule been bumped.

Discussion of an 18-game schedule, which some league officials still insist is favored by the fans, is not on the agenda for this meeting, which will conclude Wednesday. It likely isn't even on the "unofficial" agenda, the casual discussions and lobbying in which the owners engage in the hotel corridors between sessions.

In an interview with The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette over the weekend, Steelers team president Art Rooney II termed the 18-game schedule "a dead issue." The sentiment was echoed by Rooney and his father, Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney, on Sunday. Other owners and team executives joined the chorus.

"I've heard nothing," said new Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie. "I can't see it (resurfacing) again anytime soon. Maybe the competition committee will raise it, I don't know."

McKay said, however, that the schedule matter was "never mentioned even in passing" at the caucus the competition committee holds in Naples, Fla., prior to the league meetings. Said Carolina owner Jerry Richardson: "The time seems to have come and gone. Without the support of the players ... it's not happening."

"Nobody brings it up anymore," Philadelphia coach Andy Reid said.

A year ago, the prospect of an 18-game schedule was thought to be a considerable bargaining chip in the labor negotiations with the NFLPA. But the players were so publicly opposed to the increase in games that the issue was quickly removed from the CBA negotiations.

"It went off the table pretty fast," said the younger Rooney on Sunday.

The new CBA specifically stipulates that there cannot be a schedule increase without the approval of the NFLPA, even though the league has long contended that Goodell previously had the ability to unilaterally act on it. During his state of the league address at the Super Bowl last month, Goodell said the CBA permits increasing to a 22-game schedule - although that discussion is not on the table. Given the current climate, with players arguably more conscious than ever of head injuries and concussions, the 18-game regular season card is unlikely.

Goodell continues to dispute the notion that fans aren't clamoring for two more regular-season games to replace two preseason games.

"Repeatedly, the fans have said the quality of the preseason doesn't meet NFL standards," Goodell said at the Super Bowl. "That is one of the basis on which we started to look at the 18-and-two concept, by taking two of those low quality, non-competitive games and turn those into quality, competitive games that the fans want to see; they want to support.

"I talk to fans all the time. I get that feedback from them, including season-ticket holders who are the ones who are going to those preseason games and paying for those preseason games. I feel an obligation to make sure we are doing the best we can to present the best football, and that includes (asking) how do we make the preseason as effective as possible and the regular season as effective as possible, and I believe we are on the right track to get that done."

There once was some feeling that the players might acquiesce to more games if the league increased salaries commensurate to a move to 18 games. But it appears that not even money will motivate the players. "I don't know," said an NFC owner, "that we can buy (an increased schedule)."

The demise of the discussions about 18 games has hardly weakened Goodell and his regime, but the perception had been that the commissioner has achieved virtually all of his key agenda items in his 5 1/2 years on the job. The feeling during his tenure has been that, when Goodell raises an issue, his rhetoric isn't just hollow talk.

Unlike his predecessor, Goodell doesn't often float trial balloons. Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue was known to often throw out an idea, such as games in China, and then gauge how they were received by the fans and the media. His batting average typically was very good, but there was the occasional clunker. The games in China never materialized. Some would suggest that, even with the international games, like those in London, Tagliabue's vision of a global NFL has hardly gained any traction.

The sense, at least for the foreseeable future, is that the 18-game schedule won't materialize, either.

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