Try to talk to an NFL fan about preseason games and you’ll likely be met with yawns or eye rolls. Even those of us who are football junkies who spend the long six-month stretch between the Super Bowl and the Hall of Fame Game tend to lose interest after the first quarter of our team’s first preseason game and we realize meaningful football is still a month away.
The NFL knows the preseason model is broken. For many years, the owners and the commissioner, Roger Goodell, talked about how changing preseason is at the top of their list of priorities.
Nothing ever changed, though, and as of 2014 it appears interest had faded in reducing the amount of preseason games. But every time a big-name player goes down with a major injury in a meaningless preseason game, the fans put the league on blast.
The most recent victim of a preseason injury was Packers all-star receiver Jordy Nelson, who reportedly tore his ACL on this play, which on first glance seemed rather innocuous:
If the initial reports are correct, Nelson will almost certainly miss the entire season, and for what? What was really accomplished by having him or any other high-profile starter on the field?
What’s even scarier for the Packers and for the other 31 teams in the league is that they still have two more preseason games left to go. That’s 120 game minutes in which football fans will be holding their collective breath in hopes of their team getting through to the regular season without taking any more damage.
Of course, it’s not just fans who have a bone to pick with the NFL about preseason. Players aren’t exactly keen about the prospect of putting their body on the line in meaningless action and jeopardizing their contracts and careers with potential injuries.
In his postgame comments after Sunday’s game against the Steelers, Aaron Rodgers said of Nelson’s injury that “you hate to see it in the preseason because it doesn’t count for anything.” That perfectly sums up the attitude a lot of veteran players have about preseason.
The preseason does provide some valuable time for coaches to evaluate their young players on the bubble of making the roster, but let’s be real — do they really need 16 quarters of play to figure out who’s going to be the reserve safety? These are decisions that are made as much on the practice field as they are in game time, and by the fourth preseason game, coaches have basically learned everything they need to know about their team.
Bill Walsh, legendary 49ers coach, had this to say about preseason years ago:
“There’s only one rationale for playing football games before the season begins, and that’s to prepare the players for the coach’s schemes and to show the coaches what new players can do in those schemes. But you really don’t do that. You’re so afraid of your most valuable players being injured that you end up shuffling them in and out of the lineup as fast as you can. So, often you end up starting the season as ignorant about new players, new formations, and new plays as you were the first day of training camp.”
Safety comes at a price for Goodell, NFL
The NFL wants you to believe it has the players’ best interests at heart. Roger Goodell himself has said “We will always make sure that player health and safety is the number one priority in the NFL.”
But words mean nothing. Let’s look at what the NFL has actually done under Goodell’s tenure:
- Refused to change a four-game preseason structure that just about everyone agrees is broken and only leads to a greater risk of injury, even refusing to compromise with the NFLPA about the issue in 2011 collective bargaining agreement negotiations.
- Continually pushed for an 18-game regular season schedule, an idea that has been roundly criticized by NFL players and the Players’ Association.
- Added weekly Thursday Night football games, which critics have said contradicts the NFL’s stance on player safety and proves the league to value money over the health of its players. That’s not even mentioning the opinions of players, who say they struggle with the shorter rest periods and adjusted schedules.
- Pressured ESPN into pulling its partnership of a documentary on football-related concussions that would have been “very bad for the league.”
- Continually denied any link between concussions and football.
So clearly, the NFL doesn’t really give a rip that the Jordy Nelsons or Sam Bradfords or Elvis Dumervils of the NFL are going down with preseason injuries. Here’s what it does care about:
- As of 2013, NFL teams stood to make $160 million in revenue from sold-out preseasons.
- While the Patriots introduced a cheaper preseason ticket pricing plan in 2014, many NFL teams still charge standard (or close to standard) ticket prices, meaning fans are paying essentially the same money for meaningless action.
The league is so hell-bent on maximizing revenue at the expense of the safety of its players that it’s almost impossible to imagine the league removing two preseason games without adding two more to the regular season.
So the question is, at what point do fans and players say “enough is enough” and force the NFL to make some positive changes?
We know the viewers aren’t going to tune out. If they weren’t turned off by the way the NFL handled the Ray Rice fiasco or by the constantly looming guilt associated with watching a sport that essentially promotes traumatic brain injuries, they aren’t going to be alienated by the way the NFL handles its preseason and player safety standards.
As for NFL players, it’s becoming clear they trust the league less than ever before, as evidenced by many players’ responses to the “Deflategate” scandal this offseason, as well as their reactions to the previous Ray Rice and bounty scandals. If the league continues to value its bottom line over the well-being of its most valuable assets, the players, then it wouldn’t be out of the question that we’ll see a players strike happen within the next five years.
But until changes are made, there are going to be more Jordy Nelsons. And that’s bad for business for the NFL.
Tim Backes is an editor and co-founder of Novacritic.com.