Solution to meaningless NFL preseason games with meaningful injuries: Dual practices

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On the sixth of his just 11 plays Saturday, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford was tackled at his twice surgically repaired knees. Two snaps later, Bradford was slammed again, leaving him slow to rise and with a bloody lip.

Bradford's knees survived the first shot. His brain the second. And with that Philly, and the NFL as a whole, dodged the disaster of seeing the Eagles lose their starting quarterback and perhaps postseason hopes.

They were fortunate, not a concept shared in Green Bay (blown knee for Jordy Nelson), Pittsburgh (broken ankle for Maurkice Pouncey) or Washington (concussion to Robert Griffin III), among other spots. It's likely only RG3 plays this season.

Jameis Winston scored a TD on Monday but also suffered an ankle injury later. (Getty Images)
Jameis Winston scored a TD on Monday but also suffered an ankle injury later. (Getty Images)

And on Monday night, Jameis Winston's outing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ended shortly after he rolled his ankle on a sack against the Cincinnati Bengals. The injury wasn't believed to be serious, head coach Lovie Smith told reporters after the game. 

As for Nelson, Rodgers said, "It's difficult to lose a guy like that in a meaningless game."  The QB looked distraught as he renewed the old debate over shortening that meaningless preseason.

"I think a lot of players around the league [believe the preseason is too long and pointless]," Rodgers said. "At least cut it down, maybe, to a couple [games]."

This is a retread argument of course. It rises each August as great talent is lost before the season even starts. That it's been going on for years doesn't make it any less relevant. It's makes it more, actually.

In an age of rapid and relentless innovation that has changed nearly every aspect of football, all in pursuit of greater efficiency and effectiveness, why is the NFL still clinging to the nearly century-old concept of exhibition games?

[ThePostGame: Lions safety has religious explanation for Jordy Nelson's injury]

Namely, why is a league that keeps getting smarter still so dumb that Sam Bradford's knee is sitting out there waiting to get wrecked rather than finding a better way, perhaps by embracing, on a grand scale, the coaching profession's current obsession, the joint practice?

Obviously players get injured all the time, including in simple non-contact practices. Limiting preseason games doesn't assure a thing. Joint practices aren't bulletproof. Nothing is, after all – two NFL players went down to fireworks accidents over the Fourth of July.

"This is a sport where we are all going to be injured at some point," Rodgers acknowledges. "There is a 100 percent injury rate for every player."

That said, it is common sense that the less chances you take, the less likely injury occurs. It's why Bradford was pulled after that first series, because for any Neanderthal talk that we needed to see if Bradford could take a hit, head coach Chip Kelly certainly wasn't interested in seeing it too many times.

The obvious answer to why Bradford was out there in a "real game" is that pro football is a business and there is money to be made in the preseason – television, season-ticket packages, concessions, local sponsorships. Money rules the world and it is foolishly idealistic to expect a business to turn its back on money.

"The fans are playing close to full price tickets still," Rodgers acknowledged. "It's not just the coaches and the players [who have a say here]."

So each August, we go around and around.

Exhibition games were born not from the desire to prepare players for the real season, but as a promotional and revenue tool. In the 1920s, pro teams often barnstormed the area playing semi-pro clubs or anyone they could find in an effort to promote the still young sport. Even up to World War II, teams would play exhibitions during bye weeks of the regular season.

From 1970-77, owners expanded the preseason to six games because they realized they could charge season-ticket holders full boat – yet pay players less salary – at a time when a live gate was the chief revenue stream.

The league felt it needed to give fans the illusion of a real game even if it didn't count in the real standings. These days, as projected starters play less and less, it's a "real game" in name only. No one is being fooled here.

So why even have them?

Almost nothing else about the 1970s NFL, let alone the 1920s, has survived. Gone are the days of two-a-day, full-pad battles with endless Oklahoma drills. The old single-camera practice film has been replaced with dozens of angles from drones and GoPros, and virtual reality equipment that recreates a quarterback's 360-degree view from the pocket.

Where coaches once roused guys at 6 a.m. to run sprints in an effort to keep them from drinking pitchers of beers at night, now they monitor and encourage lengthy sleep patterns.

Texans coach Bill O'Brien is an advocate of joint practices. (AP)
Texans coach Bill O'Brien is an advocate of joint practices. (AP)

They do that, in part, because players (well, 99 percent of them) arrive at camp in excellent shape. There is no shedding a few pounds because a guy spent the offseason working in a bar or as a part-time mailman or something. Big salaries have brought a big commitment; specialized personal training that consumes them 11 months a year. Everything is about sports science and cutting-edge techniques. Teams now aim to work smarter, not necessarily harder.

Efficiency is why joint practices have become the rage – you can set up specific scenarios (say red-zone offense/defense) rather than hope they organically occur during the few plays the first-teamers are matched up.

"I am more in favor of joint practices," Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien said this summer, echoing coaches across the league. "You get more plays than in a game, so I think it works out really well." O'Brien loves it so much, he has proposed "joint" training camps, two teams paired up to compete.

In a joint practice, a quarterback is in a red jersey to avoid unnecessary violence. Certain drills can be non-contact and still be effective. Whistles can be quick. All sorts of precautions can be put in place – perhaps they can even figure out how to avoid fights.

Do joint practices eliminate all injuries? Again, of course not. Properly run, however, they should limit exposure. If nothing else, it should spare the quarterbacks.

So why not drop two or three or all the exhibition "games" and just stage dual practices inside the stadium, with ticket and popcorn sales and local television broadcasting along. Would fans watch? Why not? Look at what they are watching now.

Fans are far more sophisticated than even a decade ago, thanks to improved camera angles and a slew of intelligent web sites focused on the cerebral parts of the game. The NFL scouting combine gets bigger each year and that's about things such as fluid hips and cone drills. With strong analysts, wouldn't there be an audience for specific situations even if it wasn't in the flow of a "real game"?

What if two hours into the dual practice they run first-team line drills and you can see if J.J. Watt destroys someone? Maybe you mic up some players? Or would you prefer the current setup at that stage of the broadcast: the start of a pointless fourth quarter featuring a bunch of guys who are going to be cut?

Isn't this safer, smarter and more modern? Isn't that what the NFL is always about? Isn't this, or something like it, worth real consideration?

The prevailing wisdom against change has always been the annual cackling delight that sucker fans will tune in for anything, so why change a sure buck from a meaningless game?

The thing is, no one was laughing after that Packers-Steelers game Sunday. It was the same for Washington last week. And in Philly, they were just sighing in relief.

There are still, though, two more preseason games to go.