PITTSBURGH – Hines Ward rarely looks forward to late December and early January, when his shoulders sometimes ache so badly they hurt on every pass reception and his legs start rebelling after multiple games on unfriendly artificial turf surfaces.
He can't imagine what it might feel like if those games, now the 15th and 16th of an already long NFL season, start arriving sooner as the 13th and 14th games of an 18-game season.
The very thought of playing two more games that count each season led Ward to predict the days of players spending a dozen seasons in the league would quickly end.
"I'll probably be the last double-digit guy," said Ward, the Steelers' career receptions leader who is in his 13th season. "The 10-year guys you won't see any more, except for your quarterbacks. The running backs, you're really going to see a short lifetime span. The season's just too long (already)."
Any player who lasts eight seasons — and Ward doubts there will be many — could play as many games as a current nine-season veteran. That player also will have played far more games than the NFL players who experienced 12-game schedules in the 1950s and 14-game schedules in the 1960s.
Another prediction from Steelers players: Many records may stop being broken because players can't last long enough to set them. And a team's roster in August may not resemble the one in January.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and many league owners want to add two regular season games and cut two from the four-game preseason, when many starters play extensively in only one game. Goodell believes an expanded season would give fans more games worth watching and eliminate some that are next to meaningless.
However, numerous NFL players, including many in Pittsburgh, believe it would result in a poorer product because more games would be played without injured stars.
Steelers safety Ryan Clark can't believe that, at the same time in NFL is making a stronger push to protect players from concussions and other head injuries, it appears intent on expanding its season, thus increasing the risk of such injuries.
"Sometimes you need to have foresight," Clark said. "In one sense, we're saying we want to protect players from head injuries, but then you want us to go out there and do it two more times in the regular season."
Despite Goodell's argument that an 18-game season would improve the product, Clark said money is the driving force behind the push. More games mean additional ticket revenue and more TV money.
"I might get in trouble, I might get a call, but it's all about money," Clark said. "If you want guys to play 18 games, there is some ways guys are going to have to be compensated for that."
Colts president Bill Polian said Monday he believes an 18-game season is a "fait accompli." He backtracked two days later and said such a schedule would require lengthy discussion with the players union.
Steelers player representative Charlie Batch is adamantly opposed to such an expansion because of the increased chance for injury, but concedes it might happen if the owners offer players considerably more compensation during current labor talks. Steelers safety Troy Polamalu's suggestion: Guarantee all contracts, as baseball owners do.
"Obviously, our contract situation now and how we're not guaranteed is probably the worst in professional sports," said Polamalu, one of the league's top defensive players. "So it wouldn't be a problem if they started guaranteeing contracts."
Currently, numerous players sign multiyear contracts at inflated salaries they will never earn so owners can spread signing bonuses, for salary cap purposes, over more seasons. In most cases, only the signing bonuses are guaranteed.
"If the owners aren't worried about players' health or anything like that, then of course they would guarantee our contracts," said Polamalu, who missed 11 full games and parts of two others with injuries last season. "Adding more games, there's more risk, so I doubt they would do anything like that."
The league and the players union are negotiating a labor agreement that would replace the current deal that ends in March. If no agreement is reached by then, the players association believes owners will lock out the players, putting the 2011 season in jeopardy. Major League Baseball lost parts of its 1994 and 1995 seasons to a labor impasse, and the NHL shut down for the 2004-05 season because owners and players could not reach an agreement.