- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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ATLANTA -- Increasing the regular season to 17 games might seem like an odd way to resolve the NFL's pending labor problems, but an additional regular-season game could smooth some of the differences between the league and the union.
During the owners' meetings Tuesday, commissioner Roger Goodell suggested the idea of a 17th regular-season game as an alternative on the table in future negotiations. Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, bristled at the notion. In previous negotiations, the prospect of the extra game didn't mean more money for the players.
Now, it could be the bargaining chip that ultimately brings the sides together if emotions don't cloud judgment.
With NFL owners executing the early termination of the collective bargaining agreement, the league is heading to a lockout in 2011. Resolving the problem is like solving a Rubik's Cube. Upshaw doesn't want to give back the players' share of 60 percent of total revenues won in the 2006 extension. He doesn't want to adjust the rookie salary pool. But fans don't want to hear much about the labor particulars.
It's the possibility of more football -- not less football -- that interests them. For years, the NFL found the idea of a 17-game season uncomfortable. Seventeen is an odd number. The 17-week season, including a bye week for each team, barely fits in the comfortable window of starting the regular season after Labor Day and ending it around the start of a new year. The current schedule is a neat fit for the advertisers on the television networks.
Plus, 17 is a messy number. Under a 17-game regular-season schedule, one conference would have an extra home game one year while the other conference would have the extra home game the next season. For years, pro football has conducted its regular season with an even number of games -- 12 games, then 14 and now 16.
Desperate times require desperate solutions, and that's where 17 sounds appealing. Goodell joined fans and critics who have been saying for years the quality of preseason games is less than satisfying. Is there anything worse than the third quarter of the Hall of Fame game when both teams go to the third string early? Yes, there is. It's the final preseason game in which all the starters sit.
Basically, the four-game preseason has turned into a six-quarter tune-up for starters. In the preseason opener, starters get the first series or first quarter to shake off the rust. They get to play a half in Game 2 and maybe three quarters in Game 3. They sit in Game 4. Bring on the regular season.
The league has studied ways to make the preseason more entertaining for fans paying full ticket prices for inferior product. Good luck on that one, Roger.
Swapping a preseason game for a regular-season game has been long overdue. Players train year round. Teams have 14 organized training sessions to put the entire team on the field during the spring. Voluntary workouts go 16 weeks. Veterans can arrive in camp 15 days before a preseason game. Gone are the days when vets came to camp to get in shape.
In fact, it might not be a bad idea to one day consider 18 regular-season games. However, coaches claim they would have a tough time evaluating young prospects with only two preseason games. Two preseason games also might not provide enough hitting to get players ready for the regular season. Let's save the subject of 18 regular-season games for a later discussion.
Without boring you with rhetoric, here is where a 17-game regular season could get the ball rolling toward settling the labor issue. Upshaw won't give back money won in past labor negotiations, but what if adding a 17th game creates more money for the players?
In opting out of the CBA, owners claimed labor costs have risen to $4.5 billion. Using simple math, that's $281 million a week based on a 16-game schedule. Revenues are around $8 billion or $500 million a week.
A player makes a little more than $1,000 in that fourth preseason game. Based on the current salary structure, a rookie earns a weekly regular-season game check of $18,437.50. A 10-year veteran earns $51,875.
If Upshaw can come back to his players with an extra $50,000 for a 17th game -- or even $100,000 if the league goes to 18 -- he might be willing to make enough trade-offs to satisfy some of the problems owners face with the current deal. Minimum salaries for veterans would climb closer to $1 million. Rookies could earn annual base-salary paychecks closer to $400,000 eventually.
Whether owners like it or not, players are their partners. Come back to them with more money, and they may be willing to reinvest in the game. Additional revenue from a 17th regular-season game opens that door.
Sure, some competitive things have to be worked out. The current eight-division, 32-team, 16-game schedule has such a nice symmetry, but there is nothing pretty about labor problems and a lockout.
"We haven't talked about a 17th game much in the competition committee,'' said Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, co-chairman of the committee. "It was brought up eight years ago when we did some studies on whether we should go to three preseason games. I don't think we as a committee talked about it.
"We've had situations in the league where we've had odd numbers of games. We had it when we expanded to 31. There is no question there would be some differences. You have a different number of regular-season home games and you have to find ways to normalize divisions. There would be some things to work out."
The main thing is finding a way to satisfy both sides. Generating new revenue for the players could help the owners win concessions on trade-offs that alleviate their problems with player cost.
Plus, the 17-game plan would spare the fans one dreadful preseason game. Game on.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Increasing the regular season to 17 games might seem like an odd way to resolve the NFL's pending labor problems, but an additional game could smooth some of the differences between the league and the union.