Before the NFL realized that it was impossible to reconcile player health and safety with an expanded regular season, Commissioner Roger Goodell routinely criticized the quality of preseason play. The purpose was obvious; the league wanted to reduce the preseason from four games to two, and to increase the regular season from 16 games to 18.
Once it became clear that the players weren’t interested in an expanded regular season, the criticism of the preseason subsided. Goodell’s recent comments regarding the preseason serve as a clear reminder that the league still wants to swap fewer preseason games for more regular-season games.
And that’s clearly what the league still wants, even if it no longer will say so.
“Any change in the [overall game] structure, we said that we would collectively bargain,” Goodell said.
But here’s the reality. To reduce the preseason, the NFL doesn’t need to bargain with the union. The 2011 CBA gives the league the right to do that unilaterally. The league won’t voluntarily reduce revenue without a way to replace it, which is how collective bargaining comes into play.
After the CBA was finalized, the thinking was that the league eventually would inform the union that the preseason would be chopped in half, hopeful that this would prompt the players to volunteer add two regular-season games. When it thereafter became clear that the union would call the NFL’s bluff, unilateral reduction of the preseason never happened.
However it plays out, the league knows that it can’t ask for the regular season to expand. If it’s going to happen, it needs to come from the players. If the players ever would be willing to do it, they could parlay it into significant financial gains.
Still, there’s no reason to believe they ever will — especially as more is learned about the realities of CTE.
So look for the preseason to remain at four games, and for the Commissioner to periodically huff and puff in the hopes that the players eventually will agree to blow the preseason down to two games, and to pump the regular season up to 18.