I’ll admit it: the start to this NFL season felt weird. And I don’t mean because of everything we dealt with this summer.
Normally, we would ease into the regular season with four preseason games. Although these games usually aren’t a predictor of team success and we only get glimpses of our favorite players, it’s nice to see (even quite meaningless) football on our televisions before the real games start. To me, there’s something un-quantifiable in this ease into the regular season, and without it, this weekend we’ve been waiting for all summer felt a little off.
Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely loved watching Lamar Jackson tear up the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. It just felt strange going full steam ahead straight into games that count.
Teams around the league seemed to miss the preseason, too, particularly those with new coaches or quarterbacks. Teams that have lots of turnover over the offseason generally get off to a slow start even with preseason games played. However, the lack of opportunity to get better acclimated that the preseason usually provides exemplified the value of extra reps with new teammates and coaches.
I’ll highlight two of those teams: the Browns and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Both teams had very little continuity from last season, with Cleveland bringing in a new head coach in Kevin Stefanski, and the Bucs with their new quarterback Tom Brady.
Establishing a connection between a new quarterback and receivers is hard, and it looked just that for Tampa Bay last Sunday. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, two Pro Bowl-caliber pass-catchers, combined for seven catches for 81 yards in a loss to the New Orleans Saints. Brady managed to finish the game with 239 yards and two interceptions, and the Bucs fell to 0-1 with a score of 34-23.
As a defense, the Bucs committed nine penalties, and boy were they costly. One set up an easy touchdown for Saints running back Alvin Kamara, another brought back an interception, and another gave New Orleans a free first down on what had been a fourth and short.
For Cleveland, if you watched the game this weekend you saw their struggles first hand. Baker Mayfield was picked off on one of his first throws of the year after also having a pass batted down by Calais Campbell, and the connection between him and Odell Beckham Jr. was off all game. Targeted 10 times, Beckham hauled in only three of those for 22 yards. Outside of the Pat Ricard fumble, the Browns defense couldn’t stop anything the Ravens threw at them. They struggled with tackling, committed eight penalties, and, oh, that ugly failed fake punt attempt.
Tampa Bay and Cleveland kickers also missed a field goal each, with Austin Seibert of the Browns also shanking an extra point before being waived by the team earlier this week.
“Very disappointed, obviously,” said Stefanski. “They (the Ravens) deserved to win. They outcoached us, they outplayed us. We did a lot of things losing teams do.”
Teams around the league with young or inexperienced head coaches and new quarterbacks looked lost.
Instead of just pointing out a problem and no solution, I will offer a solution to meet in the middle of those who are in favor of sticking with the traditional four-game preseason and those who aren’t.
A two game preseason is perfect, and it’s what we need moving forward.
Shortening the preseason from four games is necessary. No other sports league’s preseason is ¼ as long as their regular season, and football, one of the most dangerous and physical sports, should be no different.
Undrafted free agents rely heavily on the preseason to show the team why they should stick around, and without one this year players who didn’t hear their name called at the draft suffered the most. Only 33 undrafted free agents survived final roster cuts this season, and the Ravens’ streak of 16 straight years with an undrafted rookie making the squad ended. A good preseason showing can make or break a football career. Two games is enough time for undrafted and fringe roster players to show what they have to offer and for front offices to make decisions regarding their futures.
Two games is also enough time for teams with new pieces to get snaps and plays in together before the real games start.
Two games compared to four games also lowers the odds of star players getting hurt in meaningless games, which seems to be the main argument against a preseason.
As we saw this season during training camp and in Week 1, injuries will happen anyway when players are on the field for the first time nine months. Before kickoff last Thursday, the Broncos lost star pass rusher Von Miller for the season with an ankle injury in a practice, and Chargers safety Derwin James tore his meniscus, and is also done for the year, earlier in training camp.
During Week 1, Colts starting running back Marlon Mack and Cowboys tight end Blake Jarwin, who signed a three-year, $27 million contract this offseason, also suffered injuries that prematurely ended their seasons. Three other players also saw their seasons end this weekend; Chargers linebacker Drue Tranquill, Steelers offensive lineman Zach Banner, and Packers offensive lineman Lane Taylor. Although injuries are already common, a slow transition from camp to preseason to regular season rather than jumping right into full speed football could have possibly helped to prepare these players’ bodies better.
I don’t think any fan enjoys watching preseason football, but, like I said, it does provide teams with valuable time to prepare for the upcoming season, and some teams more than others looked like they could have used one this week.
Furthermore, and most importantly, the preseason is a chance to shake off the rust and prepare the bodies of the hundreds of players about to suit up for the regular season, and it gives undrafted free agents the opportunity to showcase their talents and continue chasing their football dreams.
We need a (shortened) preseason, and the football community missed it this year.