For the first time since 1978, the NFL has expanded the regular-season schedule, with all teams now playing 17 games. It is a change that has not been entirely welcomed by players and coaches, who worry that the added wear and tear will create potential problems.
To which three former Giants players say: Give me a break.
While the concerns about lengthening the regular season have merit, anyone who suggests it is an unwelcome burden might want to consult with Bart Oates, Maurice Carthon and Sean Landeta.
During a 337-day span starting on Feb. 2, 1985, and extending through Jan. 5, 1986, Oates, Carthon and Landeta all played at least 43 professional football games — an average of nearly one game per week. Bill Parcells coached them through 23 of them: five NFL preseason games, 16 regular-season games and two playoff matchups.
By the time the gridiron endurance race was over, Oates was exhausted. The Giants had just lost to the Bears, 21-0, in the divisional playoffs and Oates had mixed emotions.
"I sat in the locker room after the Bears game and I almost wasn’t even sad we lost the game," he told Newsday this past week. "I don’t think I could have played the next week. It took me two solid months before my body was right.
"And I was young at the time," said Oates, who turned 27 on Dec. 16, 1985. "You’re supposed to be invincible. Those last few games of that ‘85 season were brutal. It took everything I could just to go out there. Hyperextended elbow, bad knee. I felt like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ "
And it came on the heels of a punishing USFL season.
"I had [coach] Jim Mora, and he made Parcells look easy," Oates said. "I love the guy now. Hated him then, though."
This was the longest marathon in pro football history.
Oates, Carthon and Landeta all played in the final USFL season in 1985. Oates and Landeta were with the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars and Carthon was with the New Jersey Generals, who were owned by New York businessman Donald Trump.
The USFL had three preseason games and 18 regular-season games. The Stars were league champions after three playoff victories, including a first-round win over Carthon’s Generals.
The league ceased operations after that season, and an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL — initiated at Trump’s urging — proved fruitless. A jury ruled the NFL had violated anti-monopoly laws, but the USFL won a judgment of just $1, which was increased to $3 because of treble damages under antitrust law.
Giants general manager George Young signed all three, and Oates, Carthon and Landeta became longtime contributors, winning both Super Bowl championships under Parcells after the 1986 and 1990 seasons.
"I was very happy in the USFL, and had they continued their initial business plan, I would have stayed," said Oates, who won a third Super Bowl with the 49ers before becoming an attorney. He now is president of the NFL Alumni Association. "In 1985, they changed with Trump and [Los Angeles Express owner William] Oldenburg. You knew it wasn’t going to last. Trump’s whole mission was to leverage the league so he could buy an NFL team. I lived it. You could see what was happening."
Oates missed four of the Giants’ five preseason games that year — the team played in the Hall of Fame Game — and returned for the next-to-last exhibition after signing a contract.
Landeta and Carthon played in all five preseason games, with Landeta beating out longtime punter Dave Jennings by the end of training camp and Carthon playing a valuable role as a fullback alongside running back Joe Morris.
Landeta played in 47 games between the USFL and NFL, including preseason, regular season and postseason. Over a 337-day span, that’s an average of roughly one game per week.
"My back was killing me," said Landeta, who went on to play in a whopping 21 NFL seasons. "I’m in a different situation being a punter, not a position player, but still, that’s a lot of games. I remember Bart and I were having lunch at the Iron Horse in Westwood [New Jersey] after that season. I look at Bart and think of what he’s gone through, and all of a sudden, my back doesn’t hurt so much."
Carthon didn’t seem to mind the experience.
"I remember our first preseason game with the Giants was at the Hall of Fame Game, and George Adams and I were rookies and just happy to be there," he said.
By the end of the season, he was OK.
"I felt fine," he said. "I was enjoying playing the game. I would have done it again."
When it was suggested that it’s not normal to play football for nearly a year almost every week, Carthon said, "No. But hey, I did it. And I would have done it again if I had to."
One of the most celebrated former USFL stars who transitioned to the NFL that season was defensive end Reggie White, who played for the Memphis Showboats and then signed with the Eagles. But White never complained about being fatigued from playing during the winter and spring before joining the Eagles. That may have been due in part to the fact that he didn’t sign with the Eagles until September and didn’t play his first game until Sept. 29, when he had 2 ½ sacks against the Giants.
"It was never an issue with him," former Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter Ray Didinger said of White, who died in 2004 from cardiac arrest, caused in part by sleep apnea. "The only issue was how good he was going to be. Of course, in his first game, he just dominated, and it was obvious right from the jump. Reggie came in and just hit the ground running. He was the best player on the field that day and the rest of his career."
White played a combined 36 games between the Showboats and Eagles, including preseason and postseason games with Memphis. The Eagles did not make the playoffs in 1985.
Parcells said he didn’t treat any of the former USFL players differently even though they’d already played a full football season by the time they reached the Giants.
"We didn’t cut them too much slack," he said. "Landeta’s case was a little different because he was a punter and he did a very good job for us. Oates and Carthon, we needed both of them."
Parcells believes today’s players will be able to handle the additional regular-season game.
"I don’t think it will be much of an adjustment," he said. "They were from 14 to 16 [in 1978], and they’re cutting down the preseason [to three games]. I don’t think it will be a big problem."
They won’t get any sympathy from Oates, Carthon or Landeta.
"You don’t get beat up so much in practice now," Oates said. "When I was playing, we looked forward to the games. They were easy compared to our practices . . . You also knew that during the game, Parcells couldn’t run onto the field and chirp at you."