The NFL preseason is trash. Fortunately, league decision-makers know it. Better yet, they have reached a point where they can realistically do something about it.
The 2021 expiration of the collective bargaining agreement with players provides a natural moment to restructure the traditional, four-week preseason template. Whether it shrinks by one or two games per team likely depends on the alternative revenue source -- an expanded regular season and/or playoffs, for example -- that players agree to.
But make no mistake. As teams increasingly sideline their key players from preseason games, there has never been a bigger appetite and ambition to scale back the structure. And it could happen as soon as next summer if owners and players agree to a new CBA before then.
"The reality is that the preseason is changing pretty rapidly," said Green Bay Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy, a member of the NFL's competition committee and its management council executive committee, which handles some CBA negotiations.
"The quality is not good, and it's changing for the worse in terms of the quality of games. Even if you went to two [per team], I still think with the salaries that we're paying, that people will be just reluctant to expose players to injuries. So you would have to figure out how much preseason you need to develop and evaluate young players. Veterans just don't need it."
Prayers up for all the boys competing in the pre season games that don't count. Every year guys get ruined playing these games. And you don't need them.— Mike Mitchell (@iammikemitchell) August 8, 2019
There was a time, not too long ago, when most coaches followed a traditional preseason routine. Starters played a few series in the first week, followed by a gradual increase through the third week before largely sitting out the fourth. But preseason-game injuries have spooked most coaches, and some of the most successful teams in 2018 were those who rested many of their key players for most or all of the preseason, including the NFC champion Los Angeles Rams.
Another one of them was the Chicago Bears, who did so despite the arrival of coach Matt Nagy and a new offensive system. The 2018 Bears played in the Hall of Fame game, giving them a total of five preseason weeks, but Nagy sat quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and others for three of them. Trubisky played a total of six preseason series and went on to lead the Bears to an NFC North Division title.
This summer, Nagy indicated that if anything, he'll be even more conservative with veteran players.
"We know what our starters can do," he said. "That's just my view. The preseason is good for first-year coaches because it's good to just go through the logistics of game day with everyone. That part is good. The rest ..."
It's fair to ask why the NFL has taken so long to address the shortcomings of the preseason. The answer lies not in the increasing disinterest of coaches, but instead in something familiar to any business: money. Preseason games are included in NFL season-ticket packages, meaning that most of the games are sellouts or near-sellouts even if the stadiums are half-filled or worse.
About five years ago, many teams began lowering the prices of preseason tickets. That made the experience less expensive for those who attended on single-game tickets. But in most cases, the teams compensated for the decrease within the season-ticket package by increasing prices of certain regular-season games.
But a reduction of preseason games would lower each team's revenue. Most opportunities to recapture it in other ways require approval from the NFL Players Association. The CBA expires after the 2020 season, but early negotiations have sparked informed speculation that the time has arrived to address the preseason.
Shifting games from the preseason to the regular season has captured much of the public's attention. But there is far from unanimous consent among owners to expand the regular season, per multiple sources, and a more palatable offset could be increasing the postseason field.
The NFL did most of the legwork in 2014 on that issue, compiling a tentative plan to expand the field from 12 to 14 teams. If enacted, that plan would eliminate the first-round bye for the No. 2 seed and create two additional wild-card games. Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke publicly about it in definitive terms, and it appeared set for the 2015 season. Then the proposal disappeared from the league's agenda, perhaps reserved as a bargaining chip for CBA negotiations.
Some around the league believe that two extra postseason games would make up for one full week of lost preseason revenue, given the lucrative value of playoff television and streaming rights, as well as the reduction in costs associated with preseason travel and stadium operation. The NFLPA might also prefer exposing two teams' worth of players to one extra playoff game, compared to asking all of them to play one or more additional regular-season games.
Assuming the NFL can make the numbers work, the logistical concerns of a shorter preseason seem much less pressing than they once were. League restrictions on offseason work and contact have combined with a surprising wave of new approaches from coaches to create season prep that barely resembles traditional training camps.
"You absolutely don't need four preseason games," San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. "I'd rather have zero than four. Preferably, I'd like to have one to evaluate the people who are trying to make the team and just one to knock a little rust off."
Packers coach Matt LaFleur, meanwhile, has prohibited all tackling during training camp practices, even in full pads. He is not alone. When it's time to get physical, many coaches prefer the controlled environments of joint practices with another team -- when they can adjust the physicality levels -- over the unchecked intensity of game action.
"There is some value to preseason games, especially when you're talking about Year 1 of a new system," LaFleur said. "But the bottom line is, to me, there are only a few objectives in the preseason, and No. 1 is that you want to come out of the preseason healthy.
"At the same time, you do need to get these guys ready for the regular season, and you want them confident in what they're doing. But you need your guys healthy. In this league, the margin for victory is so small. You need your guys on the field [in games that count]."
Indeed, there are few coaches fretting a reduction in the preseason. Goodell said earlier this summer that after speaking with many of them, it seemed clear that four preseason games are no longer needed. Even old-school tacticians such as the Minnesota Vikings' Mike Zimmer said he was unconcerned as long as the time allotted for training camp remains the same. "However it ends up," Zimmer said, "we'd have to adjust and I won't worry about it."
Some general managers and scouts might be worried by the loss of preseason opportunities to develop and evaluate young players. But those players already are getting more reps than ever as coaches sideline their veterans. Plus, the sudden infusion of new leagues -- The Spring League is headed into its fourth year of operation and the XFL will debut in February 2020 -- provide a reasonable developmental structure.
Regardless, the potential benefits of a four-week NFL preseason are increasingly outweighed by the poor quality of games and newer thinking about how to prepare for the regular season. The NFL doesn't need four weeks of the preseason. It doesn't want four weeks of the preseason. And finally, it now has a realistic path for addressing it.