So far, NFL players resist 18-game regular season

NFL coaches are constantly evaluating and preparing their teams. There are organized team activities and mini-camps during the busy offseason, summer training camp and four exhibition games (five for two teams each year) that lead up to the 16-game regular season.

To add two more regular-season games and drop two exhibition games, as NFL team owners have proposed, would mean less time for tinkering. Falcons coach Mike Smith said that would concern him to some extent but, in the end, even coaches are keen to play real games.

“As a coach, you are all about competing and playing games and the ones that really count are a lot more fun than the ones that don’t,” Smith said.

Owners believe their customers feel the same way.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has said there are too many exhibition games and fans don’t like the quality of play. During the 2011 labor negotiations, owners proposed adding two regular-season games while expanding the playoffs and eliminating two exhibition games.

But while owners have continued to broach the topic, players have continued to resist. In March, NFL Players Association president Eric Winston told USA Today that an 18-game schedule is “dead in the water” as far as he was concerned.

“It’s something that’s been brought up several times and obviously it hasn’t happened yet. So I don’t think anybody is excited about it from a players’ perspective,” said Falcons guard Justin Blalock, the team’s union representative and an eight-year veteran.

At first glance, it would seem the players would benefit financially from two additional games as preseason pay is paltry. Per the collective bargaining agreement, veterans earn $1,700 and rookies $925 for each week of training camp (plus room and board). Veterans also receive $200 per exhibition game.

Those amounts are a fraction of the paychecks players receive for each of the regular season’s 17 weeks, ranging from $24,705 for rookies to $56,176 for veterans with at least 10 years of experience.

But two more regular-season games likely wouldn’t mean two more game checks.

Team owners argue that players already are paid for the preseason games because their salaries cover 20 total games. But that reasoning ignores the reality that players who are released before the season begins are not paid any of their base salary.

The salary cap, which limits the amount teams can pay players, is pegged to league revenue. Theoretically, two more regular-season games would mean more revenue for some teams from ticket and game-day sales, as well as more money from the league’s already lucrative television rights agreements. The players would share in any additional revenue.

But so far, players have decided that the potential for more money in the salary pool isn’t worth the additional physical wear and tear from playing two more games that count.

“Already it’s a long season,” said Falcons safety William Moore, a sixth-year veteran.

Players trying to make rosters obviously will go all-out in exhibition games but established veterans tend to save themselves. Veterans say they get some value from the exhibition games even if the intensity isn’t the same as regular-season games because competition is something that can’t be replicated in practice.

The drawback is the injury risk for players in exhibition games.

The Falcons lost starting left tackle Sam Baker to a season-ending knee injury at Houston last week. Then again, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon suffered a season-ending Achilles heel injury while working with Falcons trainers before camp.

“Any time you are out there — no matter if it’s practice, training in the offseason, the postseason — there’s always a risk,” Blalock said. “At the same time, any time you go out there (to play an exhibition game), there’s something to be learned. It’s a Catch-22.”

If the league were to adopt an 18-game season, Smith predicts it would prompt other changes. There could be more mini-camps or OTAs before training camp. More teams could join the Falcons and the handful of other teams that hold joint practices and scrimmages .

“As a coach, you go back and forth,” Smith said. “If you are going to have 20 games in a season, I think there’s a thought that you want (more) to count. There are other times you think that’s going to hurt you in the preparation.”