Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota warms up before a preseason NFL football game in Philadelphia on Aug. 8, 2019. (Photo: AP)
There was a time when NFL games played in August were called exactly what they are: exhibitions.
In recent years, the league has stuck to describing them as being part of the preseason. What they need to be is extinct.
Well, that might be a bit overstated: There actually are reasons to play some practice games, which will be outlined below. But four of them?
No less a personage than Roger Goodell agrees.
“I feel what we should be doing is always to the highest quality, and I’m not sure preseason games meet that level right now,” Goodell said in June. “I’m not sure, talking with coaches, that four preseason games is necessary anymore to get ready for a season to evaluate players, develop players. There are other ways of doing that, and we’ve had a lot of discussions about that.”
Those discussions will ramp up over the next few months, with the NFL perhaps formulating a plan to present to the players’ union that could include an expansion of the playoffs (adding a wild-card team in each conference) and the deletion of one exhibition game.
Even cutting the exhibitions to three contests wouldn’t achieve what needs to be done — unless team owners are willing to slash ticket and parking and concession prices for these pretend matches in which the only glimpses of Le’Veon Bell or J.J. Watt figure to be with them in civvies on the sideline.
Teams already have begun the process of making the August games significantly less important by staging joint practices and scrimmages. Under such a controlled environment, the likes of Drew Brees and Philip Rivers, Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack get their reps.
“You get a whole different type of intensity,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said after his team scrimmaged with Buffalo. “You get a whole new look for an opponent. We didn’t game-plan anything, so you really need to use our stuff and really follow your rules as players.”
Maybe those owners should consider opening up a series of such workouts to the public, sell their merchandise and food there, and let fans actually see the stars in some sort of action.
“As an NFLPA rep, I really do think you’re going to see this league transitioning into what we’re sort of doing, what a lot of other teams are doing: joint practices and not playing in the game,” Bears quarterback Chase Daniel said.
Although the labor agreement has another two seasons to run, waiting until the 2021 season to adjust the schedule would be counterproductive. Besides, if Goodell wants something, he usually finds a way to get it done — see replay reviews of pass interference for this season, and heavier discipline for egregious hits that was adopted a few years ago.
Once the CBA is discussed, a further decrease in the preseason schedule could come. NFL owners still want more regular-season contests, though adding two seems far-fetched for a variety of reasons, many of them safety-oriented. A 17th game might be used as a bargaining chip — every team would play a neutral-site game, enhancing the international popularity the commissioner covets — with the union getting more jobs with increased roster spots.
Despite the obvious pitfalls of the preseason, none of this is simple. The coaching fraternity, unhappy since the 2011 CBA settlement that took away practice time, finds value in the exhibitions. The games provide opportunities to evaluate backups, and backups to the backups. Though skeptics will ask just how much is gained from appraising guys who might make the roster as they play against guys in the same situation, any on-field action with hitting is a benefit, according to coaching staffs.
Ezekiel Elliott, Jadeveon Clowney and Melvin Gordon might disagree as they avoided the entire exhibition slate by holding out. But the opportunities to make a roster for lower-end draft choices, undrafted free agents and fringe players come in the exhibitions in which some will play deep into the games.
“Because of how much we’re restricted in the spring and, quite honestly, what we’re restricted in training camp,” Saints coach Sean Payton said, “I know the challenge oftentimes is that fourth preseason game, but I can’t think of a season here where that fourth preseason game didn’t mean something to a handful of players that were in it.”
Still, the value of exhibition games for a handful of players doesn’t measure up to justifying the lack of substance and quality that now plagues the NFL preseason.