NFL preseason is long and often meaningless but a solution isn’t apparent to league, players

By Mark Maske,August 28, 2013
  • Redskins punt returner Richard Crawford leaves the field on a stretcher after suffering a season-ending knee injury during a preseason game against the Buffalo Bills.
Redskins punt returner Richard Crawford leaves the field on a stretcher… (Jonathan Newton/The Washington…)

The Washington Redskins will approach their preseason finale Thursday night in Tampa with an indifference, bordering on disdain, that has become typical among NFL teams for this point in the sport’s pretend-games season.

The Redskins will have starting quarterback Robert Griffin III, who is sitting out the preseason following knee surgery, on the sideline. He’ll be joined by backup Kirk Cousins, who’s nursing a sprained foot, perfectly healthy third-string quarterback Rex Grossman and all but a few of the team’s starters. The Redskins don’t want to put their key players in harm’s way for such a meaningless exercise.

Which again raises the question that even the NFL has been asking itself about the preseason: Why bother? Or at least why bother four times a year?

Linebacker Brian Orakpo said as he stood in the locker room at Redskins Park the other day: “I wish they canceled preseason overall.”

Orakpo said later that he’d been “just joking,” explaining that he does recognize some merit to the preseason but would like to see it reduced to two games to save wear and tear on players and expose them to fewer injury risks participating in games that don’t count.

“There’s value,” Orakpo said. “There’s a lot of value because you have to evaluate the younger guys on your team and who’s gonna make the roster. But the injuries are mounting so much. Every year you see so many guys going down that you really just wish that they would be able to open up the season. I personally wouldn’t mind canceling two games. I think two games would be very beneficial for everybody.”

It’s not a new thought. The NFL proposed reducing the preseason to two games per team as part of its most recent set of labor negotiations with the players’ union. But that reduction was paired with a proposed lengthening of the regular season from 16 to 18 games per team. The union strenuously objected to a longer regular season and no such changes were made in the two sides’ 2011 labor deal. The NFL did not totally abandon the idea of a longer regular season but Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners said no such change would be implemented without the players’ approval.

The owner of one NFC team said this week he continues to regard an 18-game season as a non-starter. “I don’t see that being revived in the near future,” the owner said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the league’s behalf on the topic.

The owner said he believes preseason games are “necessary as a means of forming your team and evaluating your talent” and substituting scrimmages for preseason games wouldn’t necessarily, in his view, be the answer. But the owner acknowledged that “as a form of entertainment, the preseason games are a challenge.” Goodell said when the NFL was pushing for an 18-game season that the league recognized fans were not pleased with the quality of preseason games.

Earlier this year, another person familiar with the league’s view of the matter said, “I think the chances at this point are just as good for 16 [regular season games] and two [preseason games] in the future as they are for 18 and two.”

One possibility is that the league could tie a reduced preseason to an expanded postseason. Adding one or two teams in each conference to the playoff field would create additional postseason games that would enable the sport to offset revenue losses from shortening the preseason.

“I hear rumors of that from time to time,” the owner said. “Whether that gets presented, I don’t know. I’m not sure I’d be in favor of expanding the playoffs. How much do you expand them? Two teams? Four teams? There could be a case made for that, I suppose. [But] you’re going to have 8-8 teams making the playoffs on a fairly regular basis.”

It’s not a major issue to every player, either. Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss said this week: “Preseason is preseason. Whatever they want it to be, they can make it. It doesn’t matter to me.”

Redskins linebacker Nick Barnett said he favors a two-game preseason but not if it comes with a lengthier regular season.

“I think two is the right number,” Barnett said. “But then will they go up on games? Now you’re playing 18 regular season games. For me, I think they’re at the right number now as far as regular season games. Preseason games, I would like to see them go down.”

Griffin lobbied to play in the preseason as part of his comeback from knee surgery. But Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan decided there was no need and Griffin could get ready for the regular season solely in practices.