This week brings football fans the third preseason game of the 2019 season. For years that has meant the “dress rehearsal,” the one preseason game with any modicum of value for the regular season. Starters typically play the entire first half, and many teams have traditionally extended the first string into the second half.
The status quo of the relevance of the third preseason game is being challenged, however. Several coaches have indicated they might not play important starters this weekend, including the Rams, Broncos and Lions. The eschewing of tradition is controversial on many levels.
Personally, I love it. I appreciate the middle finger thrust squarely in the nose of a tired and inefficient preseason. It’s time for a radical overhaul of the NFL preseason, and the new generation of coaches who aren’t afraid to poke the bear and treat the exhibition season for the colossal waste of time it is for starters in today’s NFL.
The preseason dates back to a time when many players still didn’t show up in shape, or work in the offseason in OTAs and minicamps. Private workouts with teammates, specialized training clinics (like the OL Performance Center headed by ex-NFL center LeCharles Bentley), professional trainers offering customized workouts for specific positions, none of that really existed even a decade ago. Now they’re requisite parts of offseason preparation for players.
Starters do get action in the growing proliferation of joint practices. The coaches get to see their gameplans executed by the starters in controlled situations where the risk of injury is dramatically lessend from a preseason game, where an undrafted rookie looking to make a name for himself can devastate an opponent’s season with a risky hit. The joint practices are great for fans, too.
The preseason should now exist to help coaches evaluate rookies and depth players. They know what they’re getting with the starters. The concern over a catastrophic injury definitely trumps the need for a veteran starter to make a token appearance in a sparsely attended game where the scoreboard does not matter. Ask the New York Jets, who lost an impact talent in starting LB Avery Williamson in a pointless exhibition. Ask Jermaine Kearse, a veteran WR whose career might have ended when he suffered a nasty fractured leg in the Lions preseason opener.
If the NFL insists on forcing teams to play four preseason games, I like how some new coaches are approaching it. Take Freddie Kitchens in Cleveland. In the first drive of the first game, Kitchens sent out his starting offense to run the 2-minute drill. He deliberately called a do-nothing play in another circumstance to get his punter a chance to pin the ball deep instead of trying to get the third-down conversion.
Those are extensions from what coaches and teams effort to accomplish in joint practices. It’s a smart tactic. It exposes the folly of the month of exhibition games where teams are increasingly cautious about injuries to pretty much any player most of the fans attending the games have ever heard of. The quickest way to bring down the antiquated concept of the preseason is for the teams to rally against it too. Coaches like Sean McVay and Matt Patricia are bringing the system down from within, intentionally or not.
So don’t fret when your team doesn’t play along and use the third preseason game as the customary dress rehearsal. Embrace them being on the cutting edge of modernizing the league and refusing to support an institution whose time and usefulness has come and gone.