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NFL still not happy with preseason games

Cleveland Browns v Denver Broncos

DENVER - SEPTEMBER 20: A detail of the NFL logo on painted on the sideline grass as the Cleveland Browns face the Denver Broncos during NFL action at Invesco Field at Mile High on September 20, 2009 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Browns 27-6. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

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Football has returned. An average of 10.1 million watched the Hall of Fame game on Sunday night. And few are complaining, even though key players like Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo were seen only on the sidelines and most of the snaps were taken by guys who’ll soon be working with half of the 59 players drafted in front of Maurice Jones-Drew.

But the NFL remains unhappy with the preseason. Probably because the NFL continues to see reducing the preseason as the ticket to expanding the regular season.

Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reports, citing an unnamed league source, that the NFL will “study and examine the 2013 preseason games to see what can be improved in hopes of offering a better product in the future.”

It’s odd, to say the least, to see the term “league source” appear on the website owned and operated by the NFL in a story about something the NFL will be doing. Either the information came from the league, or at a minimum the league had a chance to put the kibosh on a report that was deemed to be inaccurate or unduly sensitive.

Thus, it’s fair to infer the league wants to send a message, with minimal obvious fingerprints. And the message is that the 18-game regular season remains on the table, with 18-and-2, 16-and-2, and 17-and-3 being the possible configurations of the regular season and preseason.

Per the report, the NFL will consider when assessing the 2013 preseason the amount of time starters play, the configuration of the lineups, and the fourth and final preseason games -- none of which are televised nationally because few if any starters play.

Another possibility mentioned in the report is lowering the price of preseason tickets, to reflect the reduced quality of the exhibition games. But why would teams with season-ticket waiting lists ever consider making it cheaper to buy two preseason games when the only way to keep the eight regular-season tickets is to purchase seats to a pair of games that don’t count?

In our view, this is about coming up with a path to an expanded regular season, which the players and many fans and media members have resisted. The NFL needs the players to want more regular-season games. That likely won’t happen until the league exercises its right under the labor deal to cut the preseason in half, which could then get the union to run the numbers regarding the impact of a reduced preseason on the shared revenues and volunteer swapping two weeks of far more lucrative games (especially from a TV standpoint) for half of the games that don’t count.

Even then, creativity and flexibility may be required. The league previously has shown no inclination to expand by only one regular-season game; Rapoport’s reference to a 17-and-3 format could be a message that the NFL no longer insists on expanding by two or by none.

Then there’s the unique, and potentially kooky, idea of playing 18 regular-season games but limiting all non-specialists to 16 appearances. (Though it’s not mentioned in Rapoport’s report, the 18-and-16 scenario floats around from time to time, and it has never been categorically dismissed by the league.) This approach would expand the regular season, preserve player health and safety at current levels, and introduce an intriguing new wrinkle into the ultimately reality show.

Regardless, the league’s complaints about the preseason aren’t going away because complaining about the preseason is the best (and perhaps only) way to muster support for an increase in the regular season -- even if there’s currently little or no push among the players, the fans, and the media to reduce the preseason.