Well, if you’d like to look at this optimistically, take solace in this: Most NFL teams only play four exhibition games now. Every 15 years or so, that becomes five when teams are asked to take a hit and play in the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio.
But it sure beats six.
Yep, from 1951 until 1977, NFL teams played at least five and as many as six preseason games — and some of those years there was only a 12-game regular season. Whoever came up with that scheme must have also thought up the old 3-to-make-2 bonus free-throw rule that plagued the NBA in the ’70s.
In 1973, the Giants finished off their preseason 6-0. They’d gone 8-6 the previous regular season under Alex Webster and believed their 10-year playoff drought was about to come to a merciful end. Man, were they ever good in August: They dropped 45 on the Jets in Yale Bowl and 42 on the Eagles in Princeton. When they polished off the Browns, 21-10, in Akron’s Rubber Bowl in the summer finale, they were primed for something special.
“Anyone can see how well we’re playing,” Webster said. “We’re ready to take on the world.”
“We’ve got something going now,” running back Ron Johnson cooed. “We’re on a serious roll at the exact time. We’re ready to hit the ground running.”
The 1973 Giants finished 2-11-1. They were outscored 362-226. Webster was fired. In the three games that counted against the Browns and Eagles, they went 0-2-1. The lesson then, as is the lesson now, as has been the lesson for each of the NFL’s 100 seasons, remains the same:
Preseason football is meaningless.
And that’s just about the nicest thing you can call it.
Nobody likes these games. There was a time when coaches would sooner be seen publicly endorsing a switch to flag-football rules than the elimination of preseason games because they are preparation freaks, and if you are a preparation freak, you love anything that allows you to trouble-shoot without a loss counting against your record.
But even that faction has started to see the light. Jets coach Adam Gase showed unabashed remorse at allowing Avery Williamson to suffer a season-ending knee injury in Atlanta, and Sunday night he declared that Le’Veon Bell won’t see one preseason snap. Giants coach Pat Shurmur is facing a similar dilemma in regards to Saquon Barkley (when there should be no dilemma at all: Keep him in Bubble Wrap).
Then there are the fans, who of course don’t like anything about preseason games (ask a Jets fan about Williamson, prepare to hear a 25-minute dissertation in response). If you go to a game, you are going to alternate being frustrated by all the scrubs littering the field (as the Backup Bears did Friday against the Giants) and fretting with every step a regular takes that he’ll go one way and his knee will go another.
“Just survive,” isn’t the greatest slogan for anything.
But that’s the only thing that matters to these preseason games. They’re still pricey, too, even as many NFL teams have ceded to common sense and lowered the number on practice games. Still, a 50-yard-line ticket in Section 239 at MetLife Stadium that will fetch $320 for Jets-Bills opening day (and $450 for Jets-Cowboys in October) still goes for $312 for either of the Jets’ two remaining preseason games against the Saints on Saturday and the Eagles on Aug. 29.
Somehow, college football has grown into a multibillion-dollar business with an almost-as-rabid following as the NFL and there has never been anything resembling a preseason college football game. But all major college football teams do have one thing in common: They play spring football games.
The NFL should borrow this idea in reshaping its preseason. The biggest impediment is the lost revenue each team generates from its two home exhibitions; but take a few years and try to grow a plan where every team opens its stadiums twice in preseason.
The first time, let every team charge big bucks for an intrasquad game — sort of a summer version of the college spring game — and this way you dress-rehearse the stadium and all its game-day functions and essentially run an extended version of a full-pads preseason practice. Keep red jerseys on the quarterbacks (and running backs too, for that matter).
Then, have the kind of fan-friendly open practice the Jets conducted in the rain on Sunday. There were only a few thousand fans who came, but if that was the only chance fans had to see their team, those numbers would grow exponentially. Sure, guys can still get hurt, but they can also get hurt tripping over a rug. You can’t guarantee safety in a sport like football.
But every now and again you can see if common sense actually works. And common sense screams, in ever louder voice, that preseason games in the NFL need to go. The sooner the better.