One thing fans, players and coaches agree on is that the NFL should reduce the preseason. It’s simply too long. The preseason is proven to be more of a liability than an asset. Injuries that sideline players for an entire season tends to ruin the year for NFL teams.
Most NFL teams sit out their starting players for most, if not all, of the preseason. But that puts a consequential strain to many of the reserve players too. Rams cornerback Kevin Peterson suffered a season ending ACL tear in the preseason opener against the Baltimore Ravens last preseason. He was slotted as a primary backup to starters Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters and Nickell Robey-Coleman.
Wide receiver Josh Reynolds also suffered an ankle injury in the same game. He was the number four receiver, following Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. Running back Justin Davis hurt his hamstring, also against the Ravens.
It’s fair to say that the above injuries could have occurred during the first game of the regular season. Also, injuries did happen during workouts before the preseason started. The Rams were no strangers to this phenomenon. Outside linebackers Matt Longacre and Ogbonnia (Obo) Okoronkwo suffered arm and foot injuries, respectively. Tight end Gerald Everett injured his shoulder. It’s obvious that players can get hurt at any time before or during the regular season, but the league still needs to try to minimize the risk of potential injuries.
NFL coaches experiment more with preseason games. They try new ideas in exhibition games without using their starters, although sometimes coaches will put in starters to test a new scheme. In 2017, the New England Patriots lost star receiver Julian Edelman for the entire season due to a torn ACL in the preseason. Losing a star player during the preseason will take the wind out of a team’s sail. St. Louis Rams QB Sam Bradford tore his ACL in the preseason causing him to miss the entire 2014 season.
The current four-game preseason also delays the regular season that much more. The teams are better off practicing for a few more weeks before preseason games begin. The league can also add more regular season games. Extra games will then count toward their actual record and not be meaningless. This will give players a morale boost knowing the game will matter and that their efforts are worthwhile. Coaches and fans will also get more bang for their buck, especially fans holding season tickets. Season ticket holders are required to purchase the preseason games too.
This is not to say it is all about the fans and not about the players’ safety, or coaches being able to evaluate their teams. The problem is most NFL starters are sidelined for the entirety of the preseason or play the absolute bare minimum. This would make it hard for coaches to analyze their starting veterans in a real-world situation where it counts. The preseason games become useless for veteran players, but helpful to coaches evaluating their best backups. Again, the problem here is the heavy risk of injury to younger reserve players.
Some argue the current preseason is a perfect length for evaluation. Former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach and NFL broadcast analyst Bill Cowher believes the four-game preseason allows for better development of players. He says you usually get a good idea of position placement and what plays work best by the fourth week of the preseason.
The idea of a longer preseason is to work out the kinks in the teams. Coaches and players can figure out who jives well together and who has more talent at certain positions. However, the preseason is just too long. Three or even two weeks is plenty of time.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wants to shorten the preseason to just three games. This would be enough, but the league should push for just two games. This would be enough time for teams to evaluate their players and coaching strategies to see what will work during the season.
The NFL Players’ Association (NFLPA) may have something to say about this. There was discussion about this issue in 2011. The union is scheduled to discuss the preseason issue with ownership again at the end of 2021. If the issue is not resolved, there is the possibility of a strike. The NFLPA believes the current number of preseason games jeopardizes younger players’ careers and causes premature injuries to new players and even starting veterans. They also believe moving one or two of those preseason games to the regular season still risks injury.
In decades past, the NFL had six preseason games and 14 regular season games. This was acceptable at that time when players had offseason jobs to supplement their football income in lieu of offseason training. They used those six games to practice for the regular season. Times have changed, but it would be interesting to see what NFL players of that era thought about the injury risks back then.
The debate is strong, but I still feel the preseason needs to be much shorter. I move for a two-game preseason schedule starting a little later in the month of August. Adding the other two games to the season is just a risk the league should take. At least the win or loss would count.
Injuries in offseason training, the preseason and the regular season are unpredictable. I believe it is the responsibility of the NFLPA and ownership to create a plan with safety being the primary goal. That plan should be to cut the preseason in half.
The bottom line for fans would be to look forward to an earlier start to the regular season. The bottom line for players would be not having to fight through a long preseason.