As the Miami Dolphins approached Thursday night's game against the Chicago Bears with third-string quarterback Tyler Thigpen taking the reins, owner Stephen Ross' recent comments that a proposed 18-game regular season schedule would not contribute to a significant difference in players' injury rates drew a sharp rebuke from NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith.
"Comments like that tell me that they just don't get it," Smith said, referring to league management and ownership."Their teammates lost
two franchise quarterbacks in the same game ... and the message is we shouldn't worry about adding two more games? Men are not expendable and neither are their families."
Ross endorsed the 18-game season on Tuesday by saying: "The additional games, the studies show will not really increase injuries. We're still playing 20 games, we're eliminating two preseason games and adding two regular-season games, which is really what helps with the revenues, and make the fans a lot happier and those games will be a lot more meaningful. But in terms of the players, they're still playing 20 games."
Players have called this management position an insult because they expect to be compelled to experience significant play-time in two preseason games, as opposed to more selective play-time under the current four-game preseason format.
Nevertheless, the players union recently made what it termed a "good-faith" counterproposal to an 18-game regular season that calls for significant reductions in off-season voluntary workouts, expanded rosters, a reduction in training camp physical contact and enhanced health and pension benefits as the current collective bargaining agreement is scheduled to expire in early March.
"We will continue to talk with them about a new CBA," Smith said. "[Owners] clearly want two extra games, but even the current system of training camp, offseason, disability and long-term health care is in need of serious fixing. Two games on top of this current system is not going to work.
"Right now the NFL is suing nearly 300 players to deny their right to workers compensation. They want to cancel players' health insurance in March and we are fighting for player disability claims every day."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello defended Ross' remarks and countered that the league continues to address the player safety and health issues that appear inherent with an expanded schedule.
"Mr. Ross made basic factual points that have been made repeatedly -- that we are not proposing to add to the current 20-game season and that the overall injury rate per game remains consistent," Aiello said. "DeMaurice Smith knows very well that the health and safety issues of converting to the proposed 18-2 season are being addressed with the union in a comprehensive way encompassing the year-found football calendar.
"He also knows that owners long ago committed that retired player benefits will be protected if the CBA expires in March without a new agreement and that the clubs have continued to expand programs and benefits for retired players even over the past year. He knows that no player will lose his existing health insurance because a federal law called COBRA operates during a strike or lockout, which means that no player or family member would experience any change in coverage for so much as a single day because of a work stoppage. The union knows this and there is no excuse for suggesting otherwise."
Chris Mortensen is ESPN's Senior NFL Analyst.