Tuesday March 24th, 2009

DANA POINT, Calif. -- The NFL's practice of charging full price to watch backups and players likely to be cut isn't coming to an end, but limited relief could be on the way for disgruntled fans.

An initiative to expand the regular season to 17 or 18 games by taking one or two from the preseason and tacking them onto the regular schedule continued to gain momentum this week at the owners meetings at the St. Regis Monarch Bay.

Fans have long groused about having to pay full price to watch exhibition games, including last year in Dallas, where the Cowboys and Vikings each played only one starter in their preseason finale. Now their voices are being heard ... to a degree.

"My initial reaction is that it's something I'd like to see happen," Texans owner Bob McNair said of expanding the season. "We're all focused on trying to add value for the fans, and I think this is one way we can do that."

The potential change, which likely wouldn't take place until 2011 at the earliest, is as much about increasing revenue as it is about spreading good will. As the business costs continue to rise, the owners, some of whom have incurred tremendous debt from new stadium construction, are searching for ways to generate new monies.

Currently each team plays a minimum of four preseason games and 16 regular-season games. By subtracting one or two from the preseason and tacking them onto the regular schedule, the league could seek even more gold from the TV goose during future negotiations with the networks.

The earliest the owners might vote on the matter is their annual spring meeting, slated for May 18-20 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. But even if a proposal is approved, the league would need the OK of the Players Association before it could make a change -- and it would have to come to an agreement with the TV networks.

Still, there's no question the need for change is gathering size and speed.

"A lot of us are looking forward to the discussion," said Redskins owner Daniel Snyder.

Change remains at least two years away because the league not only is focused on labor issues with its collective bargaining agreement set to expire after the 2011 season, but also because it wants to get a better understanding of how more games would impact teams, players, roster sizes, television networks, schedules, you name it.

When the subject was brought up during a coaches meeting Monday, those in the room stirred with questions and concerns. Would training camp start earlier or would it be shorter? What about the wear and tear on players? Would the 53-man roster limit be increased? What about the size of the practice squad? And how do you go about evaluating young players if you need those two preseason games to prepare your starters for the season opener?

Said Ravens coach John Harbaugh: "It's probably going to make it tougher [to evaluate players]. There probably are going to be more mistakes. More guys will get released that show up somewhere else on a roster."

Added Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin: "One of the things that I think is central to the discussion is, if you go to a two-game preseason schedule, you have to acknowledge that the development and evaluation of young players, specifically the quarterback position under game circumstances, will change. At that position and others, I don't think you know what you have until you look at them under those circumstances. But if we go to a two-game preseason, the vast majority of that time will be spent preparing starters to play football. That is one of the question marks that we all will have around the league: What do we do about the development of the quarterback position and the young guys at that position on the rise."

Could it mean spring scrimmages within teams and between teams?

"We were having a conversation in the meetings yesterday," Harbaugh said. "Coaches were all whispering, 'If we have a scrimmage, will we have time [to get guys ready]? How are we going to work this out?' "

Previously, some players have expressed reservations about more "real" games. Chargers center Nick Hardwick said last year: "Are guys going to have to sit out games like in baseball? It's already a long season. An 18-game season? Wow. I think you'd have to sit a guy down for a week and let him rest, because that is incredibly long, even with the bye week."

Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said he's supportive of 17 games, but not 18, adding: "That's adding too much. We need something, and people say we need to do this, that the preseasons aren't doing too good. I know we have to do something about that. That's why I say I'm willing to look at one. But if you're 4-11 and you've got two games left, you're not going to draw too many people."

At the other end of the spectrum is Bengals owner Mike Brown, who favors 18 games.

"I think those are better games than preseason games," he said. "It's time to do that."

Well, not yet. But relatively soon.

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