Lengthen season? Strengthen rosters
Expanding the NFL's regular-season schedule beyond 16 games seems inevitable. The demand for more revenue means the league will make more games matter.
Owner sentiment seems to lean toward making the leap to 18 regular-season games instead of a taking the baby step of going to 17. Powerful owners such as Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft want an 18-game regular season. Recent deals done with satellite, cable and broadcast television networks reflect the willingness to go to 18 games as long as the league can reach a collective bargaining agreement extension with the players union. The earliest the NFL might stage a longer season would be in 2010.
Adding two regular-season games means first-line players are more exposed to possible injury, and that makes the players union wary. Commissioner Roger Goodell recently pointed out that adding two regular-season games doesn't alter the current 20-game formula because the regular-season games would replace two preseason games that have become outdated. With injuries in mind, the league and the players union have started to look ahead at what a possible 18-game season means to current roster limits.
A league-wide five-year study of injuries puts the average injury rate per team, per game at about 2.7 players. This study, which covered seasons spanning from 2003 to 2007, wasn't an in- depth breakdown of the type of injuries and how long players were out. This was just a quick look at how many players get added to the injury report each week in order to gauge the impact of two additional regular-season games.
Opinions are mixed as to what to do. Clearly, rosters need to expand to accommodate for injuries. To me, the simple solution would be adding three active players to every roster, expanding it to 56 players. The three extra players should get a team through the rigors of an 18-game schedule.
But, like everything in business, things aren't that easy. I'm not paying three additional salaries, so it's easy for me to snap my fingers and add three players. Owners will be a little more cautious.
One thought going around is to add one person to the active roster, taking it to 54, and then adding two more players to the practice squad, bringing the pool of replacement players to 10. While that might seem a modest option, practice squads have become more important through the years because the league's expansion to 32 teams has strained the talent pool. When a team loses a starter because of an injury -- either in camp or during the regular season -- the pool of competent, signed-off-the-street players is ridiculously thin.
Teams already are bringing up practice squad players to replace injured players, promoting the backups to the starting job, and scrambling to get that practice squad player if the backup suffers an injury. Things only will get worse when the United Football League starts in the fall, because more street free agents will be playing on that circuit to get their names back in the limelight.
Ultimately, the league might reach a deal with the players union to expand rosters to 56 players as a settlement point. If NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith can come to his union and say he has added 96 jobs -- three roster slots on each of the 32 teams -- he's going to be praised. Remember, these jobs will be higher-paying than the 16-week jobs because two regular-season game checks are replacing two preseason checks.
And it will be pretty clear Smith will look at the 2.7-men-per-game injury rate and suggest adding even more than three players to the active roster.
The 18-game schedule will open up the age-old debate of what to do with the active rosters on Sunday. Longtime Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt led the campaign to play more than just the 45-man active roster. He paid for 53 players, so we wanted the ability to play them all, which seems like a logical thought until you look at the competitive problems involved.
Current rules allow teams to dress 45 players and designate a third quarterback, who basically carries a clipboard. Injuries are the reason the NFL never will allow teams to dress the entire roster. What they don't want is a team coming off a bye week with a healthy roster of 53 players going against a team that hasn't had a break in seven weeks and carrying an injury list of seven or eight players.
The recent idea gaining momentum in owners' circles is adding just one player to the active roster, bringing it to 46. Still, coaches will push to try to get more players, and it's probably wise to do that. They'll probably need to present data on the injury wear-and-tear on special teams, and how stretched starters are when asked to fill in for injured players on special teams.
The active roster debate should be open. One thing is clear: the league doesn't have the wiggle room to have two regular-season bye weeks. To take the regular season from Labor Day through an 18-game schedule played over 19 weeks, then have the playoffs and Super Bowl, the season will end roughly in the third week of February. Adding a second bye week isn't an option, so teams have to prepare for a marathon.
Imagine the team that gets a Week 3 bye. That team would have to survive a 16-week gauntlet just to get to the playoffs.
One option for hope is an adjustment to the injured reserve rule. Now, if a player is going to be sidelined by an ailment for a lengthy period, the primary option is to put him on the injured reserve list. He's then lost for the entire season. The league is thinking about creating a designated injury category that would allow a player to return after a certain period. Let's say six weeks, for argument's sake.
For no reason in general, this is being called the Tom Brady rule. Sure, Brady suffered a season-ending injury early in Week 1 last season that dictated he be placed on injured reserve. But let's say he suffered an injury that would keep him out only half the season. Like the 15-day disabled list in baseball, this injured reserve rule would allow a starter to return later in the season.
Surprisingly, though, the league is thinking about limiting a team to one or two moves like that a season.
One thing I don't think will change is the 80-man training camp roster limit. It would make sense to increase training camp rosters to 86 in order to have full lines of players at all positions for drills, but owners might cut corners in that regard if there are only two preseason games. They will argue training camp rosters need to be 64 to 66 men deep if the regular-season active and practice squads increase in size.
Expansion, I guess, can go only so far.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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