FOXBOROUGH — The NFL preseason is the equivalent of football fine print. It looks like the real deal until you try to redeem it.
We’ve all been there. A great offer lands in your e-mail inbox. Then you scroll down to the fine print and realize it has so many exclusions and exceptions that it’s nothing like what it purports to be.
The disconnect is in the details with the shortened preseason. This is Year 2 of the NFL employing three preseason games instead of the traditional four, with one swapped out for a 17th regular-season game. That’s a positive for football-adoring fans. However, the preseason has become a real negative.
The product is worse and further away from the genuine gridiron article than ever. The switch has started to disincentivize coaches from playing their front-line guys in preseason games — even in the quarter-long cameos we were accustomed to. The time on the field for the real players in preseason games has, like the number of games, decreased. The prices for preseason games have not.
The NFL should consider mandating that teams play their front-line players for at least one series in two of the three preseason games. The exception would be if a player is injured. Teams should be required to produce injury reports for preseason games, especially with the prevalence of legalized gambling. Give the fans a little bit of bang for their preseason buck.
A quick review revealed that more than half of the NFL’s 32 teams held out their front-line players in the first preseason game, including the Patriots last Thursday.
There were three teams (San Francisco, Houston, and Pittsburgh) that took hybrid approaches related to preparing or auditioning new or young starting quarterbacks.
Assuming that the majority of clubs will mothball their regulars for the final preseason game — usually the case in the days of four games — then the amount of playing time for bona fide NFL players in the preseason is as low as it has ever been, especially as teams migrate to using joint practices as a preparation tool.
Coaches are probably trying to calibrate the best way to prepare their players for the regular season with one fewer preseason contest. The cautionary tale for playing key players is New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson. He could be out 4-6 weeks, according to The Athletic, after injuring his right knee in the preseason opener.
Trial and error and injury prevention have given rise to joint practices like the fight-filled ones the Patriots conducted with the Carolina Panthers Tuesday and Wednesday. Plus the ones they’ll hold next week with old friend Josh McDaniels and the Las Vegas Raiders.
An early adopter, Bill Belichick was asked if joint practices are as valuable as preseason games.
“In some respects, you get a lot more out of it,” he said. “They’re both good.”
How do you get more out of practice than a game? Allen Iverson would launch another polemic against that notion.
Football coaches are control freaks by nature. There is an element of controlled competition with the joint practices that there’s not with preseason games. That allows teams to substitute managed situational football crucibles for game ones with expected starters while reducing injury risk.
“We can set up a lot more situations that will come up that aren’t going to come up in preseason games with the players who are most likely going to be playing them,” explained Belichick.
Of course, the downside for fans is that not as many can attend the free joint practices, and you could end up with a fight spilling into your lap like Wednesday in Foxborough.
Perhaps the NFL should consider holding some joint practices inside stadiums.
From a football standpoint, there are more fracases and fisticuffs in joint practices than games, diminishing some of their value.
This is all still a work in progress for coaches. Their fundamental job — preparing their teams for the regular season — hasn’t changed. But the rules governing training camp and the number of preseason games have.
Last year in the preseason opener against Washington, Patriots starters played 12-25 snaps, including 12 for presumptive starting quarterback Cam Newton, later supplanted by Mac Jones.
In the middle preseason game, the one that should resemble the old anticipated third preseason game where starters played into the second half, the Patriots’ top offensive players played only a quarter.
In last year’s preseason finale, the top offense played a quarter.
“Every year is different,” said Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer, who entered the league in 2009. “There are times where sometimes the starters play in the first, second, third, and fourth game, and there are some times when they don’t.
“So, it’s just a little bit different, and whatever the coaches want to do. But I think you’re going to see the importance of doing [joint practices] because it allows you to evaluate your players against other players, other teams, other schemes.
“I enjoy it. I think a lot of guys do. It’s a more controlled environment; you have less chance of getting hurt. But you’re going against another team.”
Hoyer came into the league at a time when grueling two-a-days and interminable workdays were the norm during training camp. He said he feels as prepared with three preseason games as he did with four.
“I know as a young guy I needed that fourth preseason game,” Hoyer said. “I needed that fourth preseason game to make the team. Now that I’m older, I’m happy that we don’t have it.”
“Bargain” isn’t a word associated with the NFL, but most fans gladly sacrifice one preseason game for another real one, especially season ticket-holders. The league’s television partners gladly have.
Yet there are some unforeseen consequences.
Losing a preseason game has meant that preseason “games” come with more football fine print for fans and fewer top players than ever.