Allen Park — We haven’t reached absolute zero just yet.
But we all can feel the chilling effect in today’s NFL, from the players and coaches on the field to the fans in the stands — in numbers you can practically count by hand — and even the commissioner of the league.
The NFL preseason has become a complete waste of everyone’s time, by and large. And as more teams finally acknowledge it, through words and deeds, change appears to be both necessary — and inevitable.
Practice doesn’t make perfect, we’re told. But as the fear of injuries and a reluctance to reveal anything of substance influences the decision-making of NFL coaches, it does seem like the best way to prepare for the regular season.
Certainly better than trotting out starters for extended playing time in exhibition games where coaches lack the one thing they covet above all else: Control.
That’s why we see so many teams — the Lions among them — following the lead of last year’s Super Bowl participants, the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams.
More teams scheduled joint practices with preseason opponents during training camp this summer, and they’re utilizing those sessions to do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to prepping for the regular season.
They’re also using them as a ready-made excuse not to play their starters in the preseason games, citing the work they get done during the week. Simulating game conditions while limiting some of the injury risks, and scripting the situational football to suit the coaches’ needs without putting it all on tape for the rest of the league to see.
Amid all the hand-wringing about Matthew Stafford’s preseason workload here in Detroit, that’s probably worth remembering, too. The Lions aren’t exactly going it alone.
“Schematically, yeah, I think most teams that are doing joint practices are probably doing a little bit more in practice than they are in the games,” Stafford said Monday. “There’s a fine line in the preseason: You want to make sure that you’re practicing all your stuff, but you also don’t want to be laying it all out there, letting everybody prepare for you. So those practices are really good opportunities to compete against other guys and run some new stuff.”
On the sidelines
And then stand there on the sidelines watching the televised games, as Stafford did again Saturday night in Houston, with head coach Matt Patricia explaining later, “Offensively, I thought we had the work that we needed to get in.”
Rams coach Sean McVay raised some eyebrows last August when he decided to hold almost all of his starters out of preseason games entirely. But then his team enjoyed a relatively injury-free regular season — a lighter in-season practice schedule might’ve played a role in that, too — and cruised to the NFC title. The Patriots’ Bill Belichick, meanwhile, has made a regular practice of scrimmaging friendly foes for several years now, and his teams have gone to the last eight AFC championship games.
Now they’ve both got plenty of company, as more teams do the cost-benefit analysis and come to the realization the NFL preseason simply isn’t worth it.
“You absolutely don’t need four preseason games,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters earlier this month, candidly offering up a viewpoint that’s widely shared across the league.
Shanahan went on to say he’d rather have zero preseason games than the current allotment of four.
“Preferably, I’d like two,” he added. “One to evaluate the people trying to make the team, and then one to just knock a little rust off.”
That’s not asking too much, frankly.
But the problem, as always, is what such a change would mean for the bottom line, as owners continue to sell season tickets that include two extra home games in the preseason. Even at a discounted rates, those tickets feel more like ransom notes to loyal fans. And the demands to show proof of life increasingly are going unanswered.
Teams used to ramp up starters’ participation in the first two weeks of the preseason and then treat the third game like a dress rehearsal for the regular season, giving fans at least a full half of first-team action. Now we’re lucky if we even see a quarter, in many cases.
More than one-third of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks have yet to take a preseason snap this month, and it’s possible several of them won’t this week or next, either. New Packers coach Matt LaFleur, who is playing it safe with Aaron Rodgers and his nagging back injury, said Monday, "I don't think it's going to make or break us.” Same goes for another of the Lions’ NFC North rivals, as Bears coach Matt Nagy likely will limit Mitchell Trubisky to the three snaps he took in Chicago’s preseason opener — all of them handoffs.
“My biggest thing is I’m trying to do what’s best for the Chicago Bears,” said Nagy, who lost a pair of key contributors — linebacker Leonard Floyd and tight end Adam Shaheen — to significant injuries in the second preseason game a year ago. “Every team is different, and that’s OK.”
What’s not, of course, is forcing fans to pay for the inferior product they’re getting in these exhibitions, whether it’s the vanilla play-calling or the practice-squad lineups. And even Roger Goodell will admit that.
“I feel like what we should be doing is always of the highest quality,” the NFL commissioner said in June, “and I’m not sure preseason games meet that level right now.”
Actually, he knows it. It’s one reason he has been talking for the last few years about wanting to reduce the length of the preseason — to three games, or possibly two. But only if the owners can find a way to recoup the lost revenue in some other way.
Many in the NFL would love for it to be an 18-game regular season, an idea Goodell has floated again and again, holding it out as both a carrot and a stick.
But concerns about player safety could make that a non-starter in negotiations with the NFL Players Association. (The current collective bargaining agreement expires after next season.) So the compromise might involve expanding the postseason, perhaps adding two more wild-card teams and eliminating the first-round playoff byes.
Either way, what’s clear is nobody’s going to miss the preseason as it is. Because it really isn’t much, is it?