Players worried about toll of expanded season
By Scott Brown, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Friday, August 27, 2010
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James Harrison is not one for subtlety.
And the Steelers' outside linebacker was nothing if not blunt when he said everything changes if the NFL expands its regular season from 16 to 18 games.
If that happens, he said, "I need a new contract, or I'm not coming to camp."
If the reaction of Harrison and others in the Steelers' locker room is any indication, any attempts to lengthen the season only will expand the divide between the NFL Players Association and team owners. Players generally oppose the idea that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell again endorsed Wednesday for several reasons, chief among them the physical toll it will take on them.
"It's taking years off our bodies, adding extra two games," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. "You won't see guys with 10 or more years career-wise -- only kickers and quarterbacks."
The change wouldn't happen before 2012 at the earliest, Goodell said, in part so he could marshal support for the idea among players. Increasing the number of games for the first time since 1978 probably wouldn't affect Ward, who is entering his 13th NFL season.
Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall, though, is among the players who would be affected most, given his position and that the 23-year-old has yet to enter his prime.
"I don't really understand the 18-game thing. It's tough enough as it is," said Mendenhall, who had 242 carries in 2009, his first as a full-time starter. "I don't think any of the players are in favor of that."
Count receiver Antwaan Randle El among that group.
"Hate it," he said. "I'm not going to say we don't gain anything, but we lose more because we're already talking about health and concussions and all of these different things going on. To add two more games is just going to add to the injury list."
The push to lengthen the season comes as the NFL is taking steps to promote safety. With concussions a hot-button issue, the league mandated that all teams hang posters in their locker rooms that warn players about the long-term effects of head injuries.
Some see that message in conflict with the league lobbying for expanding the season, which would expose players to more contact and increase the risk of injury.
"With all of the (health) problems we're only now starting to appreciate, it can only be multiplied when you look at the additional games and additional abuse to the body," said Pittsburgh-based agent Ralph Cindrich, who played linebacker in the NFL from 1972-75. "I think it's a terrible idea."
Goodell has the power to increase the season to as many as 22 games. But, he said, "we want to do this the right way," which mains the issue will be part of the discussions on a new collective bargaining agreement. The sides remain far apart with a lockout looming in March, and this issue may complicate negotiations.
Harrison said extending the season essentially would void the six-year, $51.175 million contract he signed in 2009 because that deal was for a 16-game season. The owners almost surely will have to make some sort of financial concessions to get the players to agree to the change.
"If they have 18 regular-season games, they should have guaranteed contracts," strong safety Troy Polamalu said. "I guarantee you that every player would say, 'Yeah, if you guarantee us contracts, we'll have a 20-game season.' "
Players likely also would push for expanded rosters and a reduced number of offseason practices. There also is the question of how drastically the preseason would change if two exhibition games are eliminated. Such a move might be applauded by fans, Goodell has said, especially those who must buy tickets to exhibition games as part of their season package.
But it would make it more difficult on coaches when putting together 53-man rosters -- as well as on players trying to make the team. Cindrich said one of his clients, four-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday, never would have made the Indianapolis Colts if he had had just two preseason games to prove himself. Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said he might not have become part of one of the NFL's best defensive lines had he faced that scenario.
"I remember my first two exhibition games (as a rookie) were garbage," said Keisel, a seventh-round pick in 2002. "My last two games, I played pretty well."
If there are only two preseason games, Ward said starters would have to play almost all 60 minutes in one of them. That would leave precious few snaps for players battling for roster spots.
That is just one of many questions left unanswered as the NFL considers expanding the regular season.
"I think a lot of it is going to come down to, 'What's the compensation for us for adding two more games?' " said Giants center Shaun O'Hara, the team's NFLPA representative. "My initial thinking is, 'Why add two? Why not just add one?' Maybe go three preseason games and 17 games and see how that works before we jump into two more."