Is NFL picked clean?

MAYBE ROGER GOODELL knows football is doomed and has decided to plunder as much as possible from the village. As the commissioner oversees a sport in which camera close-ups of concussed players are routine and the mediocrity of flawed teams scoring on each other at will passes as excitement, it is more honorable to see his recent proposal to add two wild-card teams this way: He is emptying the tank of a financially soaring -- but morally suspect -- enterprise.

Otherwise, the truth of the situation is far starker: that Goodell and his owners might seek extra playoff games in an era of CTE and eight-win playoff teams because they actually believe it is good for the sport.

Goodell was exposed as compromised on the issue of player safety when he advocated an 18-game season in 2010, just as the severity of concussions was coming into clearer, deadlier focus. Goodell reasoned that players did not face increased injury risk from two extra games, because the number of preseason contests would be reduced by two. But that argument asked the public to believe that pros play the preseason with the same intensity as they do when the Super Bowl is at stake.

So Goodell is once again looking to add games -- high-stakes games -- and although he sells the appearance of responsibility and has taken some credible actions to address the head-injury crisis (like bolstering concussion protocols), the overriding consideration then, as now, is money. Of course it is. The job of the commissioner is to increase the value of franchises for the owners, and in this, there is no doubting his efficacy. Ex-players might be in wheelchairs, and addled legends like Tony Dorsett might have harbored suicidal thoughts, but NFL revenue is up an estimated 3 percent from 2009, and viewership for the first two rounds of this season's playoffs spiked by 7 percent from last season. The public cannot get enough, so Goodell wants to give it more. Meanwhile, the players' association has no position on an expanded playoffs because, according to spokesman George Atallah, the NFL has not presented a formal proposal. But should that come, it too will give plenty of weight to the financial benefits, even as some of the players call out the league for its mixed messages, passing rules to curb the most violent hits on one hand but considering adding more games on the other. "Every time they are doing these things that make more money for football but don't protect players," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said recently on Mike & Mike, "it makes you question the way that we're changing the game on the field."

Yet extra playoff games don't come just at the expense of player safety. They will also diminish the quality of the product. Salary caps and restricted free agency haven't produced parity as much as exciting mediocrity. The raucous, up-and-down NFL is trending toward arena football, and because of the game's breakneck speed, it remains ultraviolent despite the rule changes. The cap, meanwhile, prevents teams from paying for real backups. The result is a lower skill level, with turnovers and injury reports often determining the most important games.

The NFL basked in the illusion of wild-card weekend in all the close games. It did this while curiously ignoring that for the sixth time in the past eight years, multiple teams reached the postseason without winning even 10 games. Goodell has responded to this reality by offering seconds. Under his proposal, with one additional wild-card team per conference, 10-6 Arizona would have made the NFC playoffs. In the AFC, however, the 8-8 Steelers would've beaten out the 8-8 Jets, Ravens and Dolphins.

But maybe the NFL wants it this way. Maybe the extra playoff games, in the name of fan interest, are simply attractive cover for the real motive: to recoup the $765 million the NFL agreed to pay players in the concussion lawsuit settlement, a number the judge on the case preliminarily rejected for being too low. Or maybe, because injuries so dominate the league, more playoff teams are necessary, since a lower playoff bar indirectly softens the impact of broken bodies on a team's fortune.

If these are the NFL's reasons, so be it, but these reasons do not promise a quality winning product. It is one thing to watch, quite another to be fooled.

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