The Shifting Landscape of the NFL Preseason
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) — The Tennessee Titans are in town Thursday night for the Eagles' preseason opener but don't expect too much excitement as the NFL continues its shift toward sitting more and more key contributors until the real bullets begin flying.
Even commissioner Roger Goodell has noted that four preseason games aren't needed and the league's goal is to get to 18 regular-season games and cut back the preseason to two games.
The need for any exhibition game strikes many as inertia, however. Something done only because it's always been done. College football kicks off every year without the benefit of a preseason and teams do just fine with it.
"It just it is what it is," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said of the current landscape. "We are given a certain set of criteria, and it's our job to sort of figure out how best to use that criteria."
The criteria Schwartz is describing came into effect back in 2011 when the current CBA was adopted and drastically scaled back practice schedules and the time coaches can spend with players.
There was some good and plenty of bad to the old-school football mentality. The tools were there so preparation was certainly a bigger deal in prior generations but at what cost?
Schwartz remembered back to his days as a fan in his native Baltimore when the Colts had one of the more explosive offenses in the league led by an MVP candidate in quarterback Bert Jones, something that was derailed by a desire to win a meaningless preseason game, the sixth of the year by the way.
"I'll take you way back," Schwartz reminisced. "I grew up in Baltimore. The Colts were coming off an AFC Championship Game appearance. They lost to the Raiders. I think it was 1978; they were playing a preseason game against the Lions. It was late in the preseason game. They needed to win the game and they put Bert Jones back in the game. [Former Lions defensive end] Al "Bubba" Baker separated his shoulder and the Colts’ season was lost.
"I think it was the sixth preseason game, too. Obviously, that's something you would never see now."
In fact, Doug Pederson would prefer to see his key players in bubble wrap rather than try to actually beat the Titans, especially after watching three defenders injured over the first 10 practices of camp. cornerback Cre'Von LeBlanc (Lisfranc sprain), linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill (MCL sprain) and defensive end Joe Ostman (knee), who is gone for the season after being placed on injured reserve Tuesday morning.
The paradigm has shifted with health becoming the more important part of the preseason plan and why you tend to see sloppy football around the league early in the regular season. After all, there is only so much you can get done with the restrictions in place so you might as well be cautious when it comes to the players who will make or break you as a coach.
"I've looked at a lot of that," Pederson said when asked about the shifting dynamic. "I look at how our starters get the majority of the reps even here [in practice]. Teams are practicing against each other more and more now. If not once, twice a pre-season. You're getting really good work, so you don't necessarily need to see them in a game setting."
Like most of his peers, the Eagles coach now seems to value practice reps, at least for his starters, more than the live environment of a preseason game where you can't script the situational things you want to work on.
The Baltimore Ravens and old friend John Harbaugh will be at the NovaCare Complex later this month to hold joint practices in advance of the third preseason game, the former dress-rehearsal game. Pederson has already mentioned that the work in practice will likely limit the reps the starters get in the game.
"Teams are into that evaluation of the younger guys, of those situational players, the backup guys, that you really want to see and spend some time in-game situations," Pederson explained. "I think that's what the trend has been here the last couple years. Something I continue to look at, and if it fits for us, then I'll consider it. But, you know, our [starters] get a ton of work in practice right now."
Offensive coordinator Mike Groh offered his assessment on Monday, also noting that the preseason has become more about evaluation of young personnel, along with schemes.
"We are trying to get something out of each and every one of those [preseason games], Groh assessed, "and whether it's just player evaluation or scheme evaluation, and things like that, each one of these opportunities is really important."
Groh hasn't been around nearly as long as Schwartz but even in his time in the NFL, which began in 2013, he's experienced the move toward limited playing time for the key players.
"I've been in the league longer in terms of being able to take care of guys that are veteran guys that understand how to get ready for NFL regular-season games and how the speed of the game is going to be even faster than in practice, but to prepare for that, both mentally and physically," he said. "They know the system and they know their game and they know a lot of the opponents they are playing against. I think all those things kind of weigh into it."
No matter the changes, though, the goal of getting ready for the regular season in the best way possible remains the same, something echoed by Schwartz
"It was different," Schwartz said of the old system. "Training camp was longer. It was two practices in full pads a day. Now we have one practice and not all of them are in full pads. Playing time is probably a little bit more limited in preseason games. Task is still the same – get ready for the regular season. I think we're a little bit smarter about it now. I think everybody across the league is a little bit smarter about it."
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen