Why is Preseason So Long?

Posted: 08/28/2016 by levcohen in Football

As I watched the Eagles move to 3-0 in the preseason last night, I began to feel the familiar tingling of excitement in my stomach. I must admit that earlier yesterday I had smiled at least inwardly when hearing that the rival Dallas Cowboys would again be without the services of talented but oft-injured quarterback Tony Romo, this time for as many as 10 weeks, after he got hit in a preseason game. So after the Romo injury moved the Eagles up the NFC East pecking order, I felt that there was an added degree of importance to the Birds’ game against the Indianapolis Colts. I hadn’t watched the first two preseason games, but I was certainly going to watch this, the all-important third preseason game in which the starters generally play at least the first half. The tingling of excitement started early and then continued as the Eagles looked disciplined, balanced, and talented en route to a 24-3 lead in the third quarter (and an eventual 33-23 win). The defense had been playing well all preseason; now, the first team offense was doing its part, with an efficient Sam Bradford and a dynamic running game. I had almost forgotten that this was a preseason game against a vanilla defense when the announcers reminded us, the viewers, of last season’s all-important third preseason game. Any Eagles fan will remember this, because in hindsight it’s traumatic. It was the start of Chip Kelly’s third (and final) season with the team and Bradford’s first. The Eagles were 2-0 in the preseason when they faced the Packers in Green Bay. Bradford threw 10 passes that day, and completed all 10, resulting in 121 yards, three touchdowns, and a perfect 156.7 passer rating. All of a sudden, the Eagles weren’t just NFC East favorites. They were now Super Bowl contenders. We all know how this story ended. One 7-9 season later, Kelly is gone and Bradford won’t likely be in Philadelphia for long. But this post isn’t about the Eagles.

Preseason football is one of the things I understand least about sports. Let me clarify: the length of the preseason is one of the things I understand least. Preseason games generally go like this:

Game 1: Starters play a series or two, backups the rest of the first half, scrubs the second half
Game 2: Starters play a quarter, backups a quarter or more, scrubs the rest
Game 3: Starters play about a half, backups a quarter, scrubs the rest
Game 4: Scrubs (many of whom will be cut within days). This is an almost completely meaningless game.

Training camp obviously serves a purpose for teams. Every sport has a preseason, and it’s perhaps most important in football, which sees a huge amount of roster turnover each season and generally a much harder playbook for new players to adjust to. Likewise, preseason games clearly serve a purpose for teams. Performing in practice is one thing, but it’s important to see how inexperienced players adjust to in-game situations. What I don’t understand is why the preseason — or at least the number of preseason games — can’t be halved. There are a number of benefits that could come with cutting the preseason.

The most obvious one (and probably the most important one) is fewer injuries. I mentioned Romo for a reason other than just a way to voice my pleasure at the fact that another human being snapped a bone in his back. It just seemed like such an unnecessary injury for him to sustain. This is an experienced quarterback, one who’s unlikely to be helped much by a few extra snaps in a meaningless game. As I mentioned, Romo’s also an injury prone quarterback, one of those players who you fear could be injured every time he’s knocked down. The rationale for having him on the field is clear: it’s a valuable opportunity for him to gain chemistry with his offensive line and his skill position players, including rookie running back Ezekiel Elliot. But is the incremental improvement of playing against another defense instead of playing against your own defense in practice really worth the risk of injury? It’s easy to say this in hindsight, but it’s not unheard of for teams to hold their most important players out of the preseason. Aaron Rodgers threw just nine passes all preseason, while Adrian Peterson didn’t even put his pads on. If there were only two preseason games, there’d still be ample opportunity for the starters to work out their kinks but much less chance of an injury. I envision a two game preseason in which the first game is treated like Game 1 of the current structure and the second game is treated like Game 3, although this would obviously depend on the team.

A two game preseason would also give coaches a much easier way to try (or not try) things that they might want to practice (or keep secret) before the season. There are only so many new plays coaches are really curious about trying out, so a four week preseason usually devolves into vanilla offensive schemes against vanilla defensive schemes. Who does that really help? With a two game preseason, there would be more valuable opportunities for coaches to test their interesting formations or schemes against aggressive defenses. The less watered-down product would also make the games more enjoyable for fans, which could drive ratings and attendance.

There would still be plenty of time to evaluate players on the roster bubble. Most of those decisions get made on the practice field, anyway, but eight quarters of football is still enough to see what you have, especially if bubble players are playing five or six of those quarters. A way of seeing what you have in players without risking injury would be having more practices with other teams. Many of the roster decisions that have to be made are about special teams, since most of the players at the bottom of the roster make the team because they can contribute on special teams. In preseason games, there are only so many opportunities to see what you have on special teams because there are only so many kickoffs and punts in any given game. Why not exchange two of the games for more chances to drill returners, blockers, kickers, and gunners in practices against real opposition?

The only reason (as for as I can see) that the NFL might not want to cut the preseason in half is an obvious one: $$. The more games the merrier for the league. My response would be this: the real product you’re trying to sell is the regular season and playoffs. Don’t you think it’s in your (the NFL’s) best interest to protect your marketable players for the games that people actually care about? There’s also the fact that the league has been trying to extend the regular season to 18 games for years. The only thing that’s stopped them is the Players Association, which in the interest of player safety would very understandably rather not extend the season. But could the players be more willing to play 18 games if the preseason is two games shorter? What if the preseason was cut two weeks and then three weeks were added to the season, two for extra games and one for a second BYE for each team? That would make the regular season a tidy 20 weeks, which probably wouldn’t thrill the players but certainly would make the league and fans quite happy. Anyway, the specifics are above my pay grade. The point is that cutting one or two needless preseason games from the schedule gives the NFL a lot more options.

Finally, and this feels most important for me, fans wouldn’t be tricked into thinking their teams could win the Super Bowl as often. Team-wide preseason success is not predictive of regular season success at all. In the last 11 years, 19 teams were unbeaten and untied in preseason play. Those teams went a combined 141-163 in the regular season. It’s a lot easier to resist getting your hopes up after two good games than it is after four good ones.

Next Thursday, we’ll be subjected to the most meaningless games of pro football imaginable. Very few (if any) skill position starters will play, and many of the players who do suit up will be off the team by final cut time on September 3rd. But that isn’t the way it has to be going forward.

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Comments
  1. dpcathena says:

    Let’s just say my dreams for the Eagles remain modest…the victory of experience over hope.

  2. charlie says:

    Amen.

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