FOXBORO -- Football is back at Gillette Stadium. The pads were on Saturday. Players ran the hills after the third Patriots practice of camp.
This time of year is what veterans might call "a necessary evil," but there are positives to be found in returning to work -- even if the on-the-field stuff is a grind. There's a back-to-school feeling associated with meeting up with friends and co-workers who's been scattered across the globe at different points in the offseason. There's an excitement level that gets ratcheted up with the opportunity to compete for a spot ahead of a 16-game regular season.
But make no mistake, players aren't exactly looking for more football than what is already laid out for them on the calendar.
That possibility was broached through the media this offseason when it was reported that the NFL was kicking around the idea of increasing the regular-season schedule from 16 games to 18.
Players took notice. They weren't thrilled.
"I can just tell you as a union we haven't discussed playing 18 games," said Patriots players' union rep Matthew Slater. "It's something that hasn't even been on our radar. Until that changes, I think that's the stance that we're all gonna share, 'Hey, 18 games is not on the table for us.'
"But we're in the process of trying to make progress towards a new CBA. There are some things you can talk about and some things you can't talk about. We're going to remain optimistic that things will progress in the right direction and we'll go from there."
Last week the NFLPA and the league had three-days of collective bargaining scheduled, yet things came to a close after one day. A joint statement later released by the two sides said the meeting was "productive, constructive and beneficial."
There were three CBA sessions that took place in April and June, but talks seemed to stall in the most recent back-and-forth. There are plenty of issues worth discussing: revenue sharing, stadium credits (as highlighted by Pro Football Talk), player safety, the rookie wage scale, funding of future skill/injury guarantees, the franchise tag, the marijuana policy and more. Why not keep those going?
Either way, for Slater and others, the 18-game schedule isn't high on that list.
"It's hard for me to imagine right now, personally," Slater said. "I don't know if I'm speaking for the majority. I believe I am. But it's hard for me to imagine that right."
"I don't think it's going to happen," Devin McCourty said. "I don't see that in the future of 'make the game safer.' Play 18? I don't think that really meshes."
Of course, the idea of an 18-game schedule could have been -- as is assumed by many in the media -- to have been a negotiating ploy. If the league relaxes its stance on 18 games (whether or not the league actually believes it's a good idea), then perhaps it can make the argument it's owed something else in the negotiation.
"When you're trying -- any type of contract -- you have one side that wants certain things," McCourty said. "You have another side that wants certain things . . . That might be something they want. I understand that. You try to get what you want. For us, as players, we don't see more games as safer for us. It just doesn't add up for us."
An 18-game schedule with a 16-game limit for players wasn't exactly warmly embraced on the Gillette Stadium practice fields this week, either.
"There seemed to be some creativity there," Slater said. "I didn't give it a ton of thought. I didn't really read into it a ton because it's not something that we've discussed as a union. Until it's something that we discuss as a union, I'm going to consider it just talk."
"I would say," McCourty explained, "for everyone watching football, how much sense does that really make? You know what I mean? Coaches coming together and saying, 'The last two games let's not play anybody.' Who knows? That seems like it's a lot more difficult than anything. I guess you never know. Do you add more guys, and now more guys get paid? Who knows how it'd really work out?"
McCourty then added with a smile: "Maybe after that we'd get 70 percent of revenue the pot?"
As one of the league's most influential owners, Robert Kraft will likely have a prominent role in however the next CBA is constructed. And even though he has a close relationship with his players -- he's often in the building, and he was out at training camp practice Saturday -- they're not necessarily talking business even as negotiations between his side and theirs start to pick up.
"Not really. I think that's the cool thing with Mr. Kraft, you actually get to have like a personal relationship with him, talking about your family, your wives, your kids," McCourty said. "Even different ventures outside of football I've gotten to talk to him about. Rarely do we sit there and try to discuss the CBA because I think that's a part of the business that happens in the exact moments that they're supposed to happen, where it's required.
"You're not trying to do backdoor deals. I think that's the cool thing about being around here, because he is around so much, he is so hands-on, that it's a personal relationship with him where you actually get to know him, his family, Jonathan, Josh, Dan. Those guys are always in here. You get to talk to them and it's not always about CBA."
The plan is for the NFL and NFLPA to resume their official CBA discussions on July 29. The current CBA was signed in 2011 and is set to expire after the 2020 season.
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