Players aren't quick to yield on 'enhanced season'

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In this hi-def era of wretched excess, one replete with manhood-enhancement ads and real-time fantasy stats and a growing sense that the NFL never sleeps, it’s hard to imagine a world in which more football is not universally regarded as a very good thing.

For players and fans alike, embracing the conspicuous push by NFL owners for an “Enhanced Season” would seem to be a no-brainer.

Yet recent statements by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and some of the owners who employ him endorsing a switch to an 18-game regular season with just two preseason games – as opposed to the 16-and-4 model that has existed since 1978, or the 14-and-6 (!) version once foist upon the paying customers – have created a backlash among the rank-and-file that many fans find baffling.

So what gives? Wouldn’t the players, who widely regard training-camp practices and preseason games as the vocational equivalent of mind-numbing ethics seminars, rather strap it on for games that count and potentially be compensated accordingly?

The answer, in the end: Probably so. But for now, given the current labor landscape, the players’ mindset can best be described as, Why the hell should we agree to THAT?

As with everything these days in a league that appears headed for a work stoppage following the 2010 season, the Enhanced Season debate must be viewed through the prism of the impending war between the NFL Players Association and the owners hell-bent on browbeating the union into submission.

In other words, you have to look at the big picture – and I’m not talking about that 60-inch LED in your family room where you set up shop with your chips and dip and beers and fantasy charts on Sundays.

Let’s look at the situation from the players’ perspective: In May of 2008 the owners voted unanimously to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement two years early, setting up a showdown that will come to a head in the weeks following Super Bowl XLV next February.

All indications are that, on or around March 1 of 2011, the owners will lock out the players and try to leverage a new, more favorable CBA, one in which the players’ 59.6 percent take of adjusted gross revenue will be significantly reduced.

With unprecedented unity among the ranks – not to mention TV deals designed to keep the league’s massive cash flow humming during a potential work stoppage – the owners are in it to win it. One of their primary goals is to shrink the amount of money being divvied up, effectively writing off more of their operating and investment expenses and taking those off the top before splitting up the pie.

If a deal is to be struck – ideally, for fans’ sake, in time to salvage the 2011 season – the obvious solution is to strike a compromise that includes strategies for, um, enhancing the size of the pie.

There are two very obvious means of accomplishing this: Putting an NBA-style cap on rookie wages, and going to an 18-game season.

Both measures, conveniently, are highly popular among the fans, and the players will ultimately sign off on both changes.

They just won’t do it until they’re sitting at a very contentious bargaining table trying to solve a very complicated mess, and they’ll try to use those chips to extract concessions from the other side.

So when superstars like Tom Brady(notes) and Ray Lewis(notes) speak out against enhancement, realize that in addition to voicing valid concerns – implications relating to injury, career longevity and post-football disability – they’re essentially doing some preemptive negotiating.

This, by the way, is a good thing. Just as the owners are stunningly in lockstep on their desire for a better deal, the players are more informed and engaged than I’ve ever seen them, and my sense is they won’t be the pushovers some of their bosses anticipate that they’ll be come stare down time.

If you’re a football fan, you want both sides to bring their ‘A’ games to the bargaining table and come up with a creative and mutually palatable deal that allows the NFL juggernaut to thrive and evolve and become even more fan friendly.

Players like Brady and Lewis understand that, while the owners’ push for an Enhanced Season might win points now with the fans, a switch to 18 games doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Many of the issues already on the table – limiting offseason workout programs, potentially altering the current training-camp format, even post-career health care (and the three accredited seasons currently required for players to qualify for benefits) – are impacted by the change. As one NFLPA source says, the Enhanced Season “throws a monkey wrench into many of the matters we’re discussing right now.”

The owners realize this, too, which is why their recent statements in support of more football also fall into the realm of preemptive negotiation – or, depending upon one’s perspective, strategic posturing. Certainly, they could push even harder on this front, given a clause in the current CBA allowing them to add two regular-season games without union approval.

Yet the smartest among them understand that to do so would undermine the larger goal of shoving a more favorable deal down the throats of their employees. The Enhanced Season, when rolled out in conjunction with a new CBA, will theoretically help the NFLPA save face by putting a whole lot of new cash into the mix.

When I talked to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on Thursday afternoon, he smartly framed the issue in those terms.

“We’re for the 18 games,” he said. “It grows the pie for everybody and is good for our fans. But certainly it’s something we’re interested in doing in conjunction with the players’ input and consideration. We’ve decided to do it in a cooperative way.”

And they will, right after Jones finishes hosting Super Bowl XLV in his incomparable new stadium, albeit under the most hostile and economically charged atmosphere the sport has seen in two decades.

So breathe easy, football fans – in the end, you’ll get your Enhanced Season. The real question is, will you have to go an entire year without football before the two sides make it a reality?