ON THE eve oftheir preseason opener against the Cowboys last month, the Chargers announcedthat All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson would not suit up because of agroin injury. That was news to Tomlinson—the injury, not his playing status.The defending two-time league rushing champion is accustomed to watching fromthe sideline during exhibition games, baseball cap on his head, sunflower seedsin his mouth, bored expression on his face. In eight NFL preseasons he has 14rushing attempts, total—and none since the first exhibition game of 2005.
The coaching staffdoesn't need to see Tomlinson in action, nor does it want to expose him to thekind of devastating injury that sidelined Giants Pro Bowl end Osi Umenyiora(torn meniscus in his left knee) for the season on Aug. 23. But because theleague says only injured players are permitted to be on the sideline out ofuniform, Tomlinson spent the preseason nursing that "bad groin," acondition he could only smile and chuckle about.
Commissioner RogerGoodell isn't laughing, however. He's so dismayed by the poor quality ofpreseason play that he wants to reduce the number of exhibition games from fourper team to three or possibly even two, and expand the regular season to 17 or18 games.
Consider lastThursday night's game between the Cowboys and the Vikings, the preseason finalefor two teams rated Super Bowl contenders: Only one projected starter from eachclub played, linebacker E.J. Henderson for Minnesota and fullback Deon Andersonfor Dallas. A similar script was followed throughout the league, thoughspectators paid the same price for these glorified scrimmages as they do forregular-season tickets; in most cases fans are required to purchase thosepreseason seats as part of a full season-ticket package.
More and more ofthose preseason tickets, even when paid for, are going unused. The Giantslisted the attendance for their preseason finale against the Patriots as76,798, but a blindfolded archer could have shot an arrow from midfield and nothit anyone in the stands. There were a few notable spectators on the sideline,though: Eli Manning and Tom Brady sat out the game.
Goodell's proposedmodification of the schedule has prompted mixed reactions from players,coaches, executives and owners. Most coaches prefer the four-game preseasonbecause it gives them more opportunity to evaluate young and marginal players(who get the bulk of the preseason playing time and an inordinate amount in thefinal exhibition game). Some owners and veteran players support an expandedregular season because an additional week or two of regular-season games wouldpresumably increase network television rights fees. (Local stations, ratherthan networks, carry most preseason games.) That would add to the total grossrevenues, of which players receive 60%. In other words, more money for ownersand players.
Any proposedchange in the number of regular-season games would have to provide a plan forpaying the players for the extra games, including a way to adjust existingcontracts. Currently, players are paid $1,225 per week in the preseason, thenreceive 17 weekly paychecks during the regular season. "If you work at TheGap and they add two more hours to your schedule, you would expect to get twomore hours' worth of pay," says Broncos cornerback Domonque Foxworth, whois on the 10-member executive committee of the NFL Players Association.
Another concern ofthe players is wear and tear. "Are guys going to have to sit out games likein baseball?" Chargers center and player rep Nick Hardwick wonders."It's already a long season. An 18-game regular season? Wow. I think you'dhave to sit a guy down for a week and let him rest, because that is incrediblylong, even with the bye week."
Before Goodell canmake a change—he hopes to do so in time for the 2010 season, though thatappears ambitious—the 32 owners would have to agree (the support appears to bethere), and the NFLPA would have to sign off. The commissioner said that anexpanded regular season will be tied to negotiations with the NFLPA for a newcollective bargaining agreement (the current CBA expires after the 2009 season)and to talks with the networks (contracts run through at least 2011).
A union officialsaid recently that its membership is not against expanding the season but wantsto see how the players would benefit. Goodell points to two potentialadvantages for the players that would be up for discussion: a reducedoff-season workload and an increase in roster size.
For the fans? Morestars such as Tomlinson wearing helmets instead of caps on game days inAugust.
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Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback.
DAVID BERGMAN (BRADY AND MOSS)
PAIN, NO GAIN Brady and Randy Moss (81) mostly idled last week, avoiding a blow like Umenyiora's (above)
TWIG/CAL SPORT MEDIA (UMENYIORA)
[See caption above]