Nick Wass/Associated Press
Wasn’t it great to see the NFL return to an almost full slate of action last night?
Actually, it was pretty great by preseason Week 1 standards: Baker Mayfield highlights, Saquon Barkley highlights, Lamar Jackson highlights, even some Cam Newton-Kelvin Benjamin warm-up drama. It was about 30 minutes of action packed into about 36 hours of Garrett Gilbert, Nate Sudfeld and Brock Osweiler playing quarterback, which is about 20 more minutes than we typically get in early August.
The thrill of the NFL’s return usually fades just minutes after kickoff, when we all realize, oh yeah, it’s the first preseason game, the real players are barely playing and this is all we have for the rest of the month.
Now, the only thing worse than the NFL’s long preseason is a column complaining about how long the preseason is. But don’t worry: This is not one of those columns. Instead of complaining about the elements of the preseason that are broken, we’re here to offer real solutions for fixing them!
Problem: Too many preseason games
You know the drill: The preseason is too long, there are too many injuries, fans are forced to pay full price for tickets, the first game descends into unwatchable chaos by the second quarter, the fourth one is a glorified workout for practice-squad linebackers.
The NFL kicks off each season by putting the worst possible version of its product on display and leaving it there for a solid month. But owners and broadcasters aren’t going to let preseason opportunities to sell tickets and commercials disappear. So what we need is a compromise that satisfies owners, coaches, rights-holders, players and fans.
Solution: Replace two preseason games with intersquad scrimmages
Get rid of this weekend’s games. Replace them with scripted team vs. team padded practices full of situational drills and individual work. Keep the second and third preseason games the way they are, but since the fourth game is just a roster tryout, treat it that way and market the undrafted tackle versus the practice squad edge-rusher in the one-on-one pit drill as a reality show.
In an intersquad scrimmage scenario, veteran quarterbacks could participate in seven-on-sevens and individual drills without injury risk. Even a rehabbing Carson Wentz or Deshaun Watson could see some action. We’ve immediately upgraded the fan experience and the football protein content.
Patrick Semansky/Associated Press
Now, about those quarterback competitions. Want to see Baker Mayfield and Tyrod Taylor each run a red-zone drill or two-minute drill with the first-team offense against a first-team defense? Sure sounds like more fun—and makes more football sense—than making one of them play with backups against backups in catch-as-catch-can game situations.
The same scenario can play out at other positions. Imagine a dozen one-on-ones between rookie receivers like Calvin Ridley or DJ Moore and veteran cornerbacks. Fans and coaches would see much more from such drills than from one or two targets or receptions amid the preseason-game mayhem.
Tens of thousands of fans show up for team intrasquad scrimmages, so box office isn’t a problem. Coaches often “keep score” during intrasquad practices, pitting offense against defense, so there’s a mechanism for declaring winners and losers of a scrimmage.
With this change, coaches would get a ton of evaluative reps, players would get some control over the amount of contact, national fans would get gobs of highlights to pore over, and the owners can sell beer and pretzels.
Now let’s exercise some control over when these scrimmages are held.
Problem: Drippy preseason schedules
Games now are spread across Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. There’s a Ravens-Colts game on Monday night next week. And there are some Sunday games in two weeks. At least the final round of preseason games is on a Thursday night, so fans can enjoy Labor Day weekend and college football while hundreds of NFL hopefuls get cut.
The hinky schedules are no big deal for most fans (unless you are a season ticket holder paying for a Saturday 1 p.m. game in August), but they sometimes cause preparation headaches for teams. The Colts, for example, follow up their Monday nighter on August 20 with a Saturday afternoon game on August 25 and then the August 30 finale. Why on earth should a team have to deal with two short weeks in the preseason? The broken-up weeks result in lost or wasted practice time for veterans trying to prepare, for fringe players desperate to make rosters and for coaches trying to tell the difference.
Solution: Thursday night preseason games. Period.
An unofficial, unscientific Twitter poll reveals that nearly half of fans would rather watch preseason games on Thursday night than any other day of the week. That makes sense: Thursday night games leave summer weekends free while providing just enough water-cooler fodder to make Friday bearable.
Michael Perez/Associated Press
So play preseason matchups on Thursday nights, no exceptions. Coaches and players get a uniform schedule for practices and travel, which is better for both preparation and health and safety. Season ticket holders know they won’t have to pay for a Saturday game they won’t attend. National fans get rip-roaring Thursday nights instead of a weekend-long drizzle of highlights and results.
With this, our newly fixed schedule would go: Week 1 Thursday night scrimmages, Week 2 Thursday night games, Week 3 Thursday night dress rehearsals, Week 4 Thursday night Hunger Games scrimmages. It’s all killer, no filler and no pie-in-the-sky shorten-the-preseason pleading.
Now let’s make sure everyone knows who will be playing.
Problem: Coaches not announcing preseason quarterback plans
Remember when Coach used to announce that “Starter will play the first series, then Rookie will play the first half and then Reclamation Project and Rando will finish the game” two or three days before each preseason game? Coaches are suddenly tight-lipped about their plans, as if they are worried about a competitive advantage in games that don’t count.
Sometimes, the coach doesn’t want the announcement to turn into a story: imagine the brouhaha last week if John Harbaugh revealed that Lamar Jackson wouldn’t play until the third quarter of the Hall of Fame Game. But more often, this is just one more piece of information for coaches to withhold, because withholding information is one of an NFL coach’s greatest joys.
Solution: Mandatory preseason quarterback announcements
NFL teams are required to provide injury reports, schedule regular press conferences with the coach and quarterback and perform other basic public-relations tasks in the name of competitive balance, public information and just not turning into a bunch of ultra-paranoid antisocial bunker preppers. Preseason announcements of quarterback rotations should be added to that mandatory list.
Fans who have already paid full season-ticket price for a Thursday night exhibition in 90-degree heat deserve to know whether they will see Patrick Mahomes or Baker Mayfield play for any significant portion of time or whether they will pay 50 bucks to park and watch nothing but Matt McGloin and Brogan Roback.
Letting a national audience know that Josh Rosen will play a full half or Mason Rudolph will finish a game will also steer attention toward the best games, which will help the NFL promote its product, which is something it is just figuring out it has to do.
Note that if the first and fourth preseason games are replaced by scrimmages, this policy will only apply to the second and third preseason games: the only ones in which starting quarterbacks and high-interest rookies are likely to see any meaningful playing time, anyway.
Problem: “unofficial depth charts”
Mike Rodak @mikerodak
The Bills are listing AJ McCarron and Nathan Peterman as co-starters at QB on their initial unofficial depth chart of the preseason, if you’re into that sort of thing. https://t.co/heJrfxm4Di
Team public relations departments release them. We write about them. Fans react to the fact that the beloved rookie running back is listed as the fourth-stringer, which is probably just a motivational tactic. Teams and coaches then shrug them off as “unofficial.” In Soviet Russia, unofficial depth charts release you.
Solution: Media-generated unofficial depth charts
OK, colleagues, let’s roll up our sleeves and work together to solve this one.
Each team’s beat-writer brigade appoints a designated depth-chart builder. Once the job is foisted on some poor eager-to-please newbie, that individual meticulously builds the charts based on practice reps. We nationally pool the charts and release them on Twitter and the Pro Football Writers Association website on the day of the Hall of Fame Game or something and then pay those who compiled them with Dunkin’ Donuts gift certificates and, I dunno, retweeting a few of their articles if we have to.
These depth charts would be just as unofficial and meaningless as the team-sanctioned ones, but they would be based on actual observations, and the centralization/standardization will help fantasy football gamers determine if that out-of-town rookie running back is taking any meaningful reps, which is really all anyone cares about when it comes to preseason depth charts.
Depth charts are a minor detail of the preseason, but they illustrate just how outdated the NFL’s current model has become. Preseason games date back to when NFL owners needed them to drum up local ticket sales and coaches needed a month to shape and sober up players who held offseason jobs. Now, teams almost want to push eyeballs away (the depth charts and quarterback mysteries scream Stop asking about our quarterback competition and rookie sensations!), and the games are more likely to harm players than get them into football shape.
The NFL needs to rethink its preseason. But then, it needs to rethink a lot of things. Last night was kinda fun. But it could be a whole lot better, both for the players and for us.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.