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Potential resistance for 18-game season

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Matt Birk doesn't need his economics degree from Harvard to break down why the NFL is angling for an 18-game regular season.

"It's about the almighty dollar," the Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowl center said Monday.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has repeatedly questioned the need to play four preseason games, and he suggested in a New York Daily News story Sunday that players should not get an automatic raise if the regular-season schedule is expanded from 16 to 18 games.

The latter point piqued the interest of NFL Players Association interim executive director Richard Berthelsen.

On Tuesday, Berthelsen said Goodell's point ignores a key provision in the collective bargaining agreement that states the league and players would bargain over the additional compensation if the regular season were expanded beyond 16 games.

"The question is: how much additional compensation?" Berthelsen said. "And if we can't agree, then an arbitrator would decide."

Goodell mentioned the 18-game schedule during a conference call with Berthelsen and the NFL Players Advisory Committee last Friday. But the 45-minute long call mostly centered on the crackdown of dangerous hits and the concern about concussions, New York Jets fullback Tony Richardson said.

Richardson said the Daily News report was the first time he learned about Goodell's view on players' compensation if the season were expanded.

"But that didn't surprise me," Richardson said, "because, for the league, it's all about economics.

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It's likely just a matter of time before Goodell institutes an 18-game season.
(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

"If I was in his chair, I would say the same thing. You can't start out saying, 'We're open to increasing your salary.' "

Players currently get 60 percent of the league's revenue, and they could be in line for a bump once the television contracts with NBC and ESPN expire in 2012 and 2014, respectively.

"If there is more revenue, you get a piece of that," Goodell told the Daily News.

Goodell has said the earliest the expanded season could take place is for the 2010 season. If that were the case, the current CBA, which expires at the end of the 2010 season, would still apply, creating another problem. Berthelsen said players who negotiate contracts knowing that there would be an 18-game schedule would adjust their contracts accordingly. But players already under contract should be "entitled to have that contract amended," Berthelsen said.

Berthelsen said the NFLPA isn't opposed to an expansion of the regular season. But Richardson and Birk were among a handful of players in recent days who expressed concerns about expanding to 18 games.

Here are a couple more key issues:

More injuries?

Goodell has said in multiple interviews that the quality of the preseason is not up to "NFL standards." If he gets his way, Goodell would borrow a page from the Canadian Football League's playbook.

The CFL has a two-week exhibition season followed by an 18-game regular season played over 19 weeks. Then, six teams vie for the Grey Cup championship over a three-week playoff.

But Birk and Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison were concerned there would be more injuries if the NFL regular season were lengthened. For starters, the NFL postseason would include one more week than the CFL.

"You're just stretching players too thin," Harrison said. "It's not like baseball or basketball. Guys are going and hitting heads every play."

Birk said the NFL season is already a grind.

"There would definitely be more injuries because it's two more full games," Birk said.

Birk acknowledged that transforming two preseason games into regular season ones would "change the playing time" for many players. Starters and stars traditionally play limited snaps during the preseason, particularly in the final two games. That has led to public criticism of the league, especially since most teams require season-ticket holders to pay regular-season prices for preseason games.

There are also arguments that more preseason games increase the chances of a key player suffering a major injury. For instance, New York Giants Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora suffered a season-ending knee injury on Aug. 23, in his team's third preseason game. If the third and fourth preseason games are eliminated, will starters get more time in the two exhibition games?

Richardson doesn't necessarily believe so.

"Osi did a simple pass rush, like he's done thousands of times, and his knee gives out," Richardson said. "Injuries are an unfortunate part of our business, whether there are 12, 14, 16 or 18 games.

"You could get seriously hurt at practice."

Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper, the Vikings' NFL Players Association player representative, suggested adding an extra bye week to curb injuries. Otherwise, teams that get an early-season bye could be at a disadvantage.

"That's probably the main adjustment that has to be made, to make it work," Sharper said.

But Detroit Lions kicker Jason Hanson said there's one great motivator to make anything work: money.

"All of the sudden the pain goes away for most of the guys," Hanson said.

Hurting the little man?

Harrison said unheralded players would have a harder time making an impression if there were only two preseason games.

And he has a unique perspective.

Harrison was not drafted out of Kent State in 2002, and he spent his first two NFL seasons on and off the Steelers practice squad. Mostly a special teams player from 2004 to 2006, Harrison didn't become a full-time starter until last season.

"For a guy like me, who was undrafted, that's not going to you get the opportunities," Harrison said. "Those last two games of a preseason is when you're going to get a lot of playing time because they don't want the starters to get hurt."

A sixth-round pick in 1998, Birk said he too benefited from the added playing time he got during the preseason in place of Pro Bowl center Jeff Christy.

"There's no substitute for live bullets, so that would probably make the evaluation process a little bit more difficult," Birk said. "It would be tough to evaluate on just two games."

But the exceptions may not justify a month-long preseason.

For instance, the individual leaders in passing yards, rushing yards and receiving yards during the '08 preseason have played in a whopping four games this season. After gaining a league-high 562 passing yards for the Indianapolis Colts during the preseason, Quinn Gray was released and only recently signed with the Kansas City Chiefs. After gaining a league-high 317 rushing yards for the Washington Redskins, Marcus Mason was released and signed by the New York Jets, with whom he has yet to play a game.

Only veteran receiver Billy McMullen, who had 227 receiving yards in the preseason, has played in a regular-season game, although he moved from the Redskins to the Seattle Seahawks.

Sean Jensen covers the NFL and the Minnesota Vikings for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.