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Why does the NFL keep playing a four-week preseason?

Joe Flacco and company will return to preseason action this Thursday against the Rams, reigniting the starting quarterback discussion in Baltimore with Lamar Jackson waiting in the wings.

August brings 65 games of meaningless football. It also may bring commentary from the Commissioner about the possibility of shrinking the amount of meaningless football played in August.

It’s a topic that comes up during the preseason, with Roger Goodell often musing about teams being ready for the games that count with fewer games that don’t.

“I’ve asked every football guy, ‘How many preseason games do we really need to prepare your team and develop players and evaluate players and get yourself ready for the season?” Goodell said last year. “And I think that has shifted dramatically in the last three years. I think that coaches and football people think that you could do this in three [games], and I actually think that’s better for the fans. I actually don’t think the preseason games are of the quality that I’m really proud of. From my standpoint, I think that would be a really healthy shift.”

Goodell raised the topic of shrinking the preseason three different times last August. Under the labor deal finalized seven Augusts ago, the league has the absolute right to cut the preseason in half, without bargaining with the NFL Players Association.

So why hasn’t the league done it? Despite what Goodell has said, the people who employ and pay him don’t want it. And they don’t want it because they don’t want to give up the easy revenue that comes with much lower expense than what they pay players during the regular season.

So why does the Commissioner keep talking about it? Because it’s part of the broader justification for expanding the regular season. More than 40 years ago, the NFL staged 14 regular-season games and six preseason games. When the season expanded to 16 games, the preseason shrunk to four games. The league has wanted for years to slide to 18 and two or, at a minimum, 17 and three.

It hasn’t happened (and the league rarely mentions it publicly) because the league simply can’t reconcile more regular-season football with concerns for player health and safety. Which means that the change can happen only if the players ask for it, presumably within the confines of the next round of CBA discussions.

Which means that, if the NFL and NFLPA can repair a chronically-frayed relationship by then, the league can unofficially ask the union to officially ask for more regular-season games, with the understanding that the league will make it worth their while.

Until then, look for Goodell to once again point out that the preseason can and should be reduced, but without doing so until it can be done at a time when, at the same time, the regular season expands accordingly.