Battered players weary of longer NFL season
ASHBURN, Va. — There's an eyesore in the middle of the otherwise spacious and carpeted Washington Redskins locker room. Eight small, metal lockers have been moved in, the visual equivalent of a chain link fence installed in front of a multimillion dollar house.
The Redskins have no choice. They've placed five players on injured reserve in the last two weeks, and the replacements they keep signing need to have somewhere to hang their sweat pants.
Bodies are breaking down across the league, as they always do: 44 players were placed on injured reserve in the last two weeks. Last Sunday, both of the Super Bowl's starting quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner, were on the bench with concussions.
And there are still five weeks to go in the regular season and a month of playoffs to follow.
Imagine what would happen if the regular season were even longer. The NFL is looking at expanding from 16 games to 17 or possibly 18. At a time when there is heightened concern over injuries — particularly concussions — that hardly sounds like a good idea to the men in the trenches.
"To add those extra two games, that's adding a lot more stress on your body as a player," Denver Broncos defensive end Vonnie Holliday said. "Even when you're talking about more compensation, when's enough enough• And how much can your body take?"
Players interviewed league-wide by The Associated Press had numerous concerns about an expanded schedule. Some feel the quality of play would suffer. Many said the number of players on the roster almost certainly have to be expanded beyond the already cumbersome 53. They would want to be paid more, of course, but some openly questioned whether the extra wear and tear would be worth the extra money.
Then there's the argument that longer seasons shorten careers. A starting offensive linemen might play 120 more snaps over two extra games. A running back might have 30 or 40 more carries. Adding one game doesn't sound like much, but it would represent a 6.25 percent increase in the number of regular-season hits, tackles and presumably injuries. Add two games, and it's a 12.5 percent increase.
"If you expand the roster, you would have a little bit more depth, but you're getting guys in the league who would otherwise be on the street and the quality of the game could drop," Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Terry Holt said. "It'll be a very heated debate from both parties. The NFL wants to get more games, more exposure, give the fans more for their money, but it terms of body and healthy for the players, we've got an argument, too: You're wearing us out, you're beating us down.
"The average NFL career is three, four years. Now, you could be talking a year and half, maybe two. You've got to factor in all those things. It can't be just about money all the time."
Through Week 12, there were 203 players on injured reserve, a figure that's been more or less consistent over the last six seasons. Despite rule changes designed to make the game safer, the tally shows no signs of going down.
The NFL points out, however, that an expanded regular season schedule would actually include the same number of total games because the preseason — currently consisting of four or five games — would be shortened by the same amount. Preseason games, however, aren't played at the same intensity level, and starters see limited playing time.
"It's the same number of games and presumably the same number of injuries," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. "Now it may be different people getting injured with more regular-season games, but we're looking at how to mitigate that in terms of larger rosters, potentially, different type of offseason work ... and continuing to enforce our player safety rules and continue to look at other potential rule changes to enhance safety and reduce injuries."
Aiello said the NFL has no strict timetable for implementing a longer regular season. He said concerns about hurting the quality of the game are not a mitigating issue as far as the league is concerned. In fact, it's the low quality of preseason games that has helped spur the idea.
"The preseason is something that is not being well-accepted by fans and even players," Aiello said. "Players have told us they don't need four preseason games to get ready."
Any change to the length of the season would have to be negotiated between the owners and players' union. The subject is certain to be included in the current talks over a new collective bargaining agreement.
"We would want all relevant data before we even begin discussing possible extra games," NFL Players Association assistant executive director George Atallah said in a telephone interview, "including injury data; per-team, per-game profits; and playoff revenues."
Coaches would also have to adjust to a longer season. They would have to decide whether to rotate or rest players more often, something that would be easier with a larger roster but far from ideal because their best talent would spend less time on the field.
"I think the season's long enough," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said. "I have concerns about the number of injuries that we already see, and you're just going to see more by extending the season longer. I'm not a fan of that. I'd like to see our best players available at the end of the year when playoffs come around."
Oddly enough, it's the dream of every player to have a longer season. A good player on a Super Bowl team right now can play as many as 26 games: five preseason games, 16 regular season games, four playoff games and the Pro Bowl.
"I've already played 20 straight games in a season before, so it's nothing new," Steelers left tackle Max Starks said. "If they added two additional games, there's still going to be injuries. We're in a contact sport. Guys get injured the first game of the season, the preseason. For us, once you get to the point where you're in December, it doesn't matter. You're all fighting for February. Even if you add the other two games, it really is the same length of time, your body's still going to react the same way."
Starks appears to be in the minority. Most linemen already say they never recover from the game-to-game soreness once December comes around. Outside the Redskins locker room — not far from the unsightly metal lockers — defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin wondered how many massages he would need to get through an 18-game slate.
"I already get one twice a week now," Griffin said. "It would be good for the fans — the fans would love it — but as for players ..."
Griffin shrugged. A few minutes later, teammate Antwaan Randle El essentially finished the thought.
"I hate to say it," Randle El said. "But it's going to shorten some careers."
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