NFL commissioner Roger Goodell commented during the month of June that playing four preseason games may not be necessary and that the games, in their current state, may not meet the NFL’s high standard of quality. Considering what the preseason has devolved to in the NFL, those comments were not surprising.
To the eyes, the NFL Preseason has become, in a lot of ways, a formality. It doesn’t seem to always live up to its billing as an opportunity for veteran players to “get back in the groove of things” and for younger players to develop and put good things on tape.
That’s not to say that the preseason has no value, because it does have some. But what little value it seems to provide players these days is declining at a pretty rapid rate.
Moving From Tradition
For example, as recently as a few years ago, every NFL team treated their third preseason game as a bona fide “dress rehearsal.” It was a tradition for starters to play the entire first half, save perhaps a small list of superstar players.
Now, a majority of teams no longer practice that tradition. The Los Angeles Rams’ first-team offense never took the field as a unit at any point during the 2018 preseason, and the defense played very little.
The Tennessee Titans, religious observers of the preseason dress rehearsal under multiple previous coaching staffs, barely allowed starting quarterback Marcus Mariota and their other first team players to play into the second half of their third preseason game last year.
Actions always speak louder than words, and as more teams give their starters less playing time in the preseason, they send a message that they don’t see the exhibition games as being that valuable to veteran players.
A Veteran’s Insight
Cornerback Logan Ryan of the Titans, a seven-year veteran and two-time Super Bowl champion, had this to say when asked whether the preseason is actually as valuable as some think it is.
“That’s a good question. It’s just that everything has a lot of coverage, now. We don’t know in the NBA what players go to practices in their offseason. I don’t know, right now, who went to Spring Training for the Phillies, I don’t know if Bryce Harper went or not, it’s not covered every day, so I mean, obviously, because of NFL Network and the coverage, this is entertainment that’s every single day of the year. They move the draft back, the combine is now in prime time, they’ve got guys running 40s at 9 p.m. now, so everything is about having good coverage.
“I think the preseason is important to get in shape, to get reps, to get chemistry, but back in the day, preseason and Training Camp was put in before they had OTAs, guys had other jobs. They had Training Camp for a couple of weeks to get in shape, but we work out all year. We have OTAs, then a little break, and most of us go train for Training Camp, so we extended our offseason in that right as the game has grown and changed.
“Back in the day, because of the salary, they had to work other jobs. Now, this is our only job.”
Translation: the NFL preseason does have value for veteran players, but not as much as it once did.
What about the young guys?
When it comes to young players and rookies, in particular, there certainly is more to gain in the preseason. However, it’s still probably not as much as a lot of people think. A good example to support this idea is the Titans’ fourth preseason game from last season.
Luke Falk, the Titans’ failed sixth-round pick from the 2018 Draft, played the entire game at quarterback against a Minnesota Vikings combination of Trevor Siemian and Kyle Sloter. As is typical with fourth preseason games, neither team played their starters, and several backups also sat out the contest.
What ensued was not something that allowed younger players to put good things on tape or gain valuable experience, but rather an agonizing affair that featured 3+ hours of very sloppy football.
There wasn’t much of any “good tape” produced by players on the roster bubble, and the experience probably wasn’t all that valuable for the young guys who participated, perhaps aside from the mental reps they received.
While that is just one example and (thankfully) the only game I watched during Week 4 of the 2018 preseason, I imagine that a lot of other games played that week looked pretty similar.
A Coach’s Approach
During last month’s OTAs (organized team activities), I attempted to get Titans head coach Mike Vrabel to comment on whether solid performances in preseason games can actually affect a player’s standing when it comes to making the final 53-man roster. He was resistant at first, but eventually offered a thought. Here’s how the exchange went:
LW: “The commissioner made some comments yesterday about how maybe the preseason isn’t as valuable to teams as it once was. What is your thought process on that?”
MV: “My thought is that, whatever they tell us to play, we’ll go and play. There’s nothing I can do, I’m off the player’s association. For 7 or 8 years, I haven’t been on it. Whenever they tell me the game is, we’ll travel to it.”
LW: “So if ____ roster bubble guy makes an interception in a preseason game, is that going to make a difference in whether he makes the roster?”
MV: “Which game? What did he do in practice? There’s a lot of things that go into it aside from, ‘oh, he made four picks in the fourth preseason game.’ He may have 15 mental errors before he made 2 picks that get tipped at the line of scrimmage. What is a pick? Until you show it to me, I can’t tell you if it was a good play, bad play, lucky play, or if he was just in the right place at the right time. If you just say ‘2 picks’, it’s like saying ‘2 sacks.’ The quarterback could’ve run around for six seconds and then fallen down, or they snapped the ball over his head.”
Calling the NFL preseason pointless or meaningless would be wrong, as that is simply not true. Rather, the value that it does provide players does not warrant four games. It certainly does not warrant five games for the two teams annually forced to participate in the Hall of Fame game.
Regardless of what shortening the NFL preseason would mean in terms of the potential of adding to the regular season or any other outcome, it needs to be done. It’s a poor product that, in many regards, is meaningless.
If the preseason continues to be four games, it will also continue to be a tired month-long stretch where teams are forced to go through the motions and pretend to care a lot more than what they probably actually do.
Cover image: Kirby Lee/USA Today