How 17-game NFL season could benefit players, owners

The prospect of the NFL extending its schedule in this era obviously presents shaky optics. The league’s attitude toward player safety continues to be part of the mainstream sports discussion. But a mutually beneficial opportunity exists here.

With owners looking increasingly committed to convincing the NFL Players Association to accept a proposal for a 17-game season, the union has a bargaining chip it did not possess during the 2011 labor talks. Asked to agree to the first NFL schedule increase since 1978, the NFLPA can put key issues on the table when collective bargaining agreement discussions resume.

If enough concessions are made, the rumored proposal the NFL is finalizing makes more sense than previous ideas. The league rightfully scrapped the 18-game concept, which once featured the goofy setup that would have brought an 18-game season with a 16-game limit per player. The 17-game concept could improve the league and increase revenue for its labor force.

Since the current CBA was finalized in July 2011, the NFL looks vastly different. The players’ deal was scrutinized, but they made key working-conditions strides with less leverage than they have now. Two-a-day practices -– once synonymous with football -– are long gone. Players now spend less time at off-season workouts, and the number of in-season padded practices is now capped at 14. Non-CBA changes have also helped the game this decade. Concussion protocol is imperfect, but the recently implemented process represents an improvement from how this central NFL issue was previously managed. Rules designed to curtail helmet-to-helmet contact have helped protect players.

More progress could soon be made if the NFLPA plays its cards right. The 16-game schedule has existed far longer than the 12- or 14-game slates –- neither of which lasted 20 years. The NFL has kept its 16-game structure for 42 seasons. While the league’s prosperity over that time would support keeping the status quo in place, the reported 17-game proposal has pluses.

Chief among them: the new-look schedule. This proposal, according to CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora, will call for a 19-week regular season, reinstituting the double-bye format only used in 1993. In a decade in which the owners’ greed manifested itself via the “Thursday Night Football” package, the league should have already brought this back. Its inclusion would be essential.

Adding two weeks to the regular season would push it into mid-January, the playoffs into February and slot Super Bowl Sunday in late February. This would extend the NFL’s footprint through another month. For a league featuring games in less than five months of the year, compared to seven for MLB and nearly eight for the NBA, that would be significant. The prospect of numerous additional time slots, along with increased gambling revenue, will surely lead to record TV deals and likely bigger annual salary cap spikes. That may be a sufficient trade-off for the NFLPA to approve the extra game. So could the rumored two-game preseason.

Each team’s 17th game would reportedly occur at a neutral site, either in a different U.S. market or overseas. Moving beyond London and Mexico City would be intriguing for the sport globally. None of this matters if the NFL cannot design the new schedule properly.

It would be ludicrous for the league not to work the double-bye format in conjunction with teams’ Thursday-night requirements. Scheduling one of a team’s two byes in advance of its Thursday assignment should be mandatory. The Thursday games have justifiably increased the players’ distrust of the league, and if the NFL prefers to continue its quick-turnover Thursday setup under a 17-game schedule, the NFLPA should view it as a non-starter.

To entice the NFLPA, the NFL will bend on issues like marijuana and Roger Goodell’s investigatory power, according to multiple reports. The union will think bigger. The current collective bargaining agreement calls for the players to earn at least 47% of the revenue but no more than 48.5% — down roughly 4% from the previous CBA. This was a point of contention during this summer’s negotiations. The players need to leverage the owners’ desire for more games.

This would mean pushing for a higher salary floor than the current requirement of teams needing to spend 89% of their cap space over a four-year period. Raising the league-minimum salary should be achievable, as should further reducing padded practices and off-season commitments. The NFL has already shown amenability to expanded roster sizes -– thus creating more jobs for fringe players -– and lowering the number of accrued seasons necessary for players to qualify for pensions. The elimination of the fifth-year option –- a 2011 CBA creation –- or reducing rookie contracts from four years to three should be talking points considering what the league will propose.

One key non-safety drawback: an expanded postseason. The 14-team playoff bracket attached to this proposal would push the NFL into NBA-NHL territory. While a league with 17 games won’t run into the trouble its peers have regarding the regular-season relevance, 14 of 32 teams making the playoffs does devalue it. Additionally, giving only one team a bye per conference opens the door to a team benefiting from an easier schedule – see: the 2010s Patriots – and possessing the significant advantage of needing one fewer postseason win to reach the Super Bowl. No team without a bye has qualified for a Super Bowl since 2012.

If the parties green-light this new reality, mainstream media detractors will take aim at a league already labeled as callous for its past dealings with concussions. While the NFL’s 2010s product has been undeniably its safest, many media members will zero in on the safety-related concerns a 17-game schedule presents. But prospective player benefits could make the one-week work increase worthwhile.

How much the players can extract from the owners en route to this new era will determine how this would-be seminal change should be perceived. If the players receive enough in return, the new format can be a game-changer for the NFL long term and widen the popularity gap between it and the other major American sports leagues.

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