After a regular season featuring 17 weeks of thrills and a postseason capped by an entertaining Super Bowl with a record-breaking TV audience, it might seem a no-brainer to give America what it can't get enough of:
That's what the league says is behind its push to expand the regular season from 16 to 18 games. Though there are other issues, that one has become a major sticking point in the ongoing labor fight between owners and players and threatens to bring the world's most lucrative sports enterprise to a standstill.
Commissioner Roger Goodell seems intent on making the change. Players continue to band together in staunch opposition.
Will it happen? Should it happen?
There are few absolutes. In fact, the only thing that is clear is the sides' disparate points of view.
The league's owners have approached the issue by appealing to fans' disdain for meaningless preseason games. The current proposal would reduce the four-game preseason to two, replacing the final two preseason games with two additional regular-season contests.
"Repeatedly, the fans have said the quality of the preseason doesn't meet NFL standards," Goodell said during his Super Bowl address last week. "That is one of the basis on which we started to look at the 18-and-two concept, by taking two of those low-quality, noncompetitive (preseason) games and turn those into quality, competitive (regular season) games that the fans want to see.
"I feel an obligation to make sure we are doing the best we can to present the best football."
Goodell has targeted season-ticket holders in particular, because they are charged full price for preseason games.
The NFL Players Association, whose members are preparing to be locked out by owners when the collective bargaining agreement expires in three weeks on March 3, is steadfastly against the proposal. It contends more regular-season games will result in an increase in injuries and shortened careers.
They cite rising injury numbers. Union data said 352 players ended this season on injured reserve, including 13 Buccaneers (up from 250 overall in 2009). Among those players, a total of 3,278 games were missed, each player averaging 9.5 games on IR.
"You can't paint the picture any clearer than that," said George Atallah, NFLPA assistant executive director of external affairs.
While the total number of games (preseason and regular season) would remain at 20, the cumulative effect of playing more regular-season games will be absorbed mostly by prominent players. They play sparingly in the preseason when rosters can have as many as 80 players, spreading out the wear and tear. When the regular season begins, rosters are capped at 53 as starters play their requisite 40 or 50 snaps.
Over the years, the toll of two additional games could add up.
"We had 352 active players finish on injured reserve," said Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, a member of the union's influential executive committee. "That's a really, really high number. And the way 18 games so far has been proposed, with no consideration for players and post-career benefits, making sure players are taken care of over the long haul … it's disappointing.
"It feels like a slap in the face."
Fujita added that players currently receive five years of health coverage after their careers end, but, "When I talk to players who retired, eight, nine, 10 years ago, a lot of those guys didn't really have any issues in their first five years post-career. A lot of issues started … eight, nine, 10 years post-career when you've got to get another knee operation, or you've got to get a knee replacement or hip replacement. Those are the things that cost a whole lot of money."
Fewer preseason games also means marginal players trying to make the roster will have less of an opportunity to prove themselves to coaches.
But to a great extent, this fight hinges on the same issue holding up the labor negotiations: money.
For all the talk of giving fans what they want, owners openly acknowledge they want to expand the season because they think it will result in additional revenue. And players seem willing to discuss the expansion if they believe they are being adequately compensated — despite their health and safety concerns.
It's difficult to say how much an expanded regular season would impact revenues, but one expert says it might not create an automatic windfall.
"I don't think that's the case at all," said Scott Rosner, academic director of the Wharton Sports Business Academy at the University of Pennsylvania.
"You're not expanding your gate receipts (because the number of total games doesn't change). You can argue that, locally, you could see a marginal increase in concessions and in stadium sponsorships being worth more because the preseason games aren't well attended. But the real increases would come from national media. We're talking about television revenues seeing a proportional increase."
Rosner agreed that, in the short term, 18 regular-season games could make financial sense. But he urged caution in the long term: "One of the reasons the NFL is so successful is because they have the perfect formula — 16 games in 17 weeks. You're certainly concerned about diluting the product. You have to wonder whether there's going to be the same demand.
"It's certainly not a risk-free endeavor."
Given the sizable gulf between the sides, this also is an endeavor that's a long way from becoming reality.