The NFL preseason has gone from lame to obsolete

Dan WetzelColumnist

Aaron Rodgers attempted four passes in one preseason appearance for the Green Bay Packers this year. There’s no chance he plays in Thursday’s finale, so that’ll be it for him. Dak Prescott has tossed 18 passes for Dallas in two games. The Rams haven’t allowed Jared Goff, Todd Gurley or other key players to even sniff the field.

Across the league, the Week 3 preseason games, which once resembled something of a dress rehearsal and were at least marginally entertaining, now resembled the old Week 2 or Week 1. Avoiding injuries was the priority – and it didn’t work for Jacksonville Jaguars wideout Marquis Lee, who was lost for the year with a knee injury.

Modern coaches see little to no value in these exhibitions.

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“We’re at almost 2,000 snaps in practice,” Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy said Saturday when asked why quarterback Mitch Trubisky didn’t play and has attempted just 18 passes this preseason. “For somebody telling me 25-30 reps is going to make him better Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, it’s not going to happen.”

The NFL preseason has long been lame, a holdover from the bygone era when players would arrive at training camp out of shape from an offseason of inactivity or even working second jobs to pay the bills. As recently as 1977, teams played six exhibition games and just 14 regular-season games.

Now it’s obsolete. The game has moved past its existence and by next year it’s likely more teams will approach the preseason like the Rams (playing no one of value) than the Cleveland Browns (who still act like it’s important).

It’s worth noting in the 2017 preseason Cleveland went 4-0 and L.A. finished 2-2. In the regular season the Rams were 11-5 and the Browns 0-16. This may not be coincidental.

Teams aren’t even pretending anymore. They’ll still take season-ticket holder money for two extra games and sell local broadcast rights, but this is a nuisance now.

Getting rid of it, or at least half of it, isn’t just an idea these days. It’s a necessity. Something needs to be done after the current collective-bargaining agreement expires in 2021, if not sooner.

Rams quarterback Jared Goff has yet to play a snap during the entire preseason. (Getty)
Rams quarterback Jared Goff has yet to play a snap during the entire preseason. (Getty)

Dallas owner Jerry Jones pushed Tuesday for an 18-game regular season, two preseason game-model, which is preferable but not without problem.

What was most notable is that he did it with a new twist by suggesting that NFL studies show regular-season games are actually safer than preseason games.

“I think, candidly, it’s probably physically better for players than it is to have the longer preseason, the longer practicing,” Jones told 105.3 FM in Dallas. “Our studies show that we actually have a ramped-up injury situation with players during preseason as opposed to the injury factor in the regular season.”

There are plenty of questions about such studies and if they really say what Jones says they do. Some of it makes sense; it really isn’t how many games someone plays, it’s how many times they crash into another person or their knee maneuvers the body on an open field at full speed. That can happen in a Wednesday workout as much as a Sunday afternoon game.

It’s like a pitch count in baseball rather than innings completed.

Presumably what Jones is saying is less practice, less days in full pads would play a factor here. And preseason games may be just as intense, if not more so, than regular-season games. Of course, the players fans really care about don’t play that much in preseason games.

Jones’ comments, though, at least open the possibility that the impasse can be broken and that the NFL is considering this as a wide-ranging issue – a way to reform the entire year, not just switching games around.

The league has already done some of that for safety’s sake by limiting full-contact practices during the season, cutting down on old two-a-days in the summer and regulating organized team activities in the spring. Jones says two and 18 is the next step.

“It … [creates] a safer game for the players,” Jones said.

If the NFL can clear the hurdle of player safety, then this can finally happen. In addition to Jones’ study, options are myriad.

The NFL could add a second bye week, although if the season is 18 games over 20 weeks then it really stretches out the schedule (it’s currently 16 games over 17 weeks). That can make the season feel endless and by extending it 12.5 percent decreases the importance of any single victory, which has long been a benchmark positive for the game.

The league could also offer the elimination of Thursday games that players hate and figure the two extra regular season weeks can make up for lost revenue of that television package.

Mostly, though, rosters could be expanded so fewer players have to play extra snaps, either due to unit depth or the need for double duty on special teams. That doesn’t just increase the number of players in the league, it also can extend careers.

The NFL has been proposing this since 2008. It hasn’t gotten done. It hasn’t really gotten close. Back then, though, it was an improvement. Now, with entire teams basically sitting the preseason out, it’s a necessity.

Make it two exhibition games and 18 regular, or three and 17 or two and 17, or two and 16, or something. Anything.

“It certainly gives our fans what we all think they deserve and that is a competitive game,” Jones said.

Here’s guessing the fans aren’t top of mind for NFL owners or players. It doesn’t mean they don’t deserve more than this farce.

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