Injuries May Derail Longer Season

Major injuries to key players on opening weekend may have slowed the demand for an 18 game schedule. At least for those not paying full price for exhibition games.

For the opening weekend of the season, the league and the NFL Players Association supplanted the spin doctors that they typically employ to present their side of the argument in the ongoing give and take tug-o'-war of hardball labor negotiations.

Unfortunately, they replaced them with orthopedists.

And that isn't good, one might surmise, for the high-level negotiations aimed at carving out an extension to the collective bargaining agreement.

A little algebraic logic here to explain: One of the principal bargaining chips for the talks is the prospect of a longer regular season. Or, as the NFL chooses to call the proposed expansion to 18 games, an "enhanced" season. (Oh, to be the owner of the P.R. firm to which the league probably paid out a million bucks to conjure up that clever euphemism, huh?)

The hook is that there will be more meaningful football played, and the fans will get two more weekends of what they most want. Players, at least the ones to whom we've spoken, have demonstrated little desire to risk their bodies, even for more money. And so the first weekend was hardy an advertisement for convincing anyone that two more games is sage.

Yep, injuries, as the NFL's talking heads have emphasized, can happen at any time. Witness the season-ending hurts sustained in the preseason. Or even before camps opened, in pre-summer workouts. But the fact there were so many injuries of such consequence in the opening week of play isn't exactly going to convince players to lay their bodies on the line for a couple more weeks in late January. And if there is no "enhanced season" trump card to play, the issues at the bargaining table get a little stickier, it seems, and the prospects for labor piece more fragmented.

Not even counting the various nicks and scrapes that will sideline key players for a game or two, on its kickoff weekend the NFL lost for the entire 2010 season at least a couple Pro Bowl performers, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher and a starting center who had rehabbed all offseason to return from a late '09 knee injury. A former defensive player of the year probably won't return for the year - although the Indianapolis Colts won't admit it yet - after just seven snaps. At a time when head injuries have caused such consternation, there were at least four concussions. One quarterback was knocked out for a few games, and two others might not be able to play this coming weekend.

Not exactly the kind of endorsement the NFL had hoped for in order to sell the idea of a longer schedule. Or that the union wanted to be able to convince its constituents that two more games were worth the while, not to mention the money.

By virtue of the current CBA, the league is actually empowered to increase the number of contests - including the preseason in the total formula - to 22 games. But Commissioner Roger Goodell, whose tour of NFL camps this summer to field queries from players was not universally well received, by several accounts, is too wide to force such an add-on at a time of rank-and-file unrest. Poor form, the commissioner has correctly concluded. At the same time, the folks to whom Goodell is answerable, the owners, are scrambling to create more revenue streams.

Player-related expenses have spiraled exponentially. The costs of the "game-day experience" (another Madison Avenue-created talking point) - i.e., newer stadiums and enhanced fan extravagances - have skyrocketed. The globalization of the game has stalled a bit. And the league and owners can only sell so many T-shirts. So the best way to make more money: More games.

It's a sound-enough concept, at least on the drawing-room table, but there remain a couple of flaws.

First off, the idea that fans detest preseason football so much that the only antidote is games which really count. The fallacy: Fans don't dislike the exhibition schedule so much as they do shelling out full freight to view the charade games in which stars like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady pull on baseball caps instead of helmets.

Second, the fans will pay more to see their heroes play late in the season in games that mean something. The fallacy: Adding two more games might not add to the competitiveness of the final month of the season.

Especially if enough players are on injured reserve and not on the field.

Indianapolis center Jeff Saturday, the Colts' union player representative, noted last weekend that the expanded schedule "faces some very real concerns." Other players have echoed those sentiments. A few weeks ago, Chicago tight end Desmond Clark assessed that players "are walking around like zombies" at the end of 16 games, and speculated what things might be like in an 18-game schedule.

Certainly, with the divvying up of $8-$9 billion at stake, CBA talks won't completely break down over a few broken bones or torn-up ligaments. But given the carnage of one week, discussions have to be limping a bit.

In the movie "Scent of a Woman," Lt. Frank Slade, aka Al Pacino, notes that: "There is no prosthetic for am amputated spirit." Neither is there a salve capable of assuaging the broken psyches, or broken body-parts, sustained last weekend in the first game of the season.

Given the collective carnage, it might be difficult for the two sides to put the Humpty-Dumpty contract talks together again, especially if the expanded schedule is the band-aid.

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