Once again, the league's proposal for an 18 game regular season is in the news. I originally wrote this article at the end of preseason and had intended to post it right then. I postponed it at the time, however, due to the short week and hoopla over the Saints home opener. With the league making its first detailed proposal to the NFLPA and Bill Polian suggesting it's already a fait accompli, now seems like a good time to dust this off.
One of the more convincing arguments against the NFL moving to a format of 2 preseason games and 18 regular season game is that at least four weeks of preseason are necessary to accomplish the training and talent evaluation provided by the current format. During preseason, players are trained for a long regular season with hopes of multiple post season games. The preseason also provides coaches and front office personnel a vehicle for evaluation of talent acquired in the offseason. That neither of these two goals can be properly attained with a two week preseason is one of the strongest arguments against changing the current format.
First, players must physically prepare their bodies for a lengthy season of professional football. Players must get their bodies physically conditioned to handle 60 minutes of football at full speed. They must also be fit enough to handle the rigors of a 16 game (or possibly longer) season. That entails not only being conditioned to minimize their chances of season- or career-ending injury, but also to be able to recover quickly from the inevitable nicks and scrapes they will endure along the way. Beyond the need for physical conditioning, though, is the need for mental conditioning. Surviving in the NFL requires a mental toughness that many people cannot muster, and that mental toughness requires just as much training as the physical aspects of the game. Success in the NFL is often less dependent on a player's physical gifts than his mental ones.
Besides getting players into physical and mental football shape, training players for the season is also a matter of football specific training. This includes everything from fundamentals like reminding defenders how to tackle and establishing good timing on offense, to installing offensive and defensive systems. Preseason provides the opportunity to "shake off the rust" acquired during the offseason, and sharpen individual and team skills.
In addition to player training, the preseason provides an opportunity for talent evaluation. While this mostly involves rookies, it is also important for veteran free agents on new teams. Determining whether a veteran free agent has come along far enough in recovery from an injury or whether he can meet a team's needs or successfully execute its schemes can be just as important as determining the potential of an undrafted rookie free agent. In both cases, though, preseason games provide an opportunity to evaluate players in "real" game situations at full speed. There are many players in the league that rightfully claim they would not have made it onto a 53 man roster without the 4th preseason game.
On the face of it, these two goals provide very convincing answers to the question of why the NFL needs at least four preseason games. But, in the context of the debate over an 18 game regular season, that is not the right question to ask. Having identified these two goals of preseason, the question becomes, can these goals be achieved under any proposal for an 18 game regular season? Personally, I believe they can.
I haven't read any details of the specific proposal from the NFL, but up until now it has been universally acknowledged that training camps and OTAs will be significantly altered to better accomodate the physical training needs of players for an 18 game regular season. It is also a given that the longer regular season will require a larger active roster. Most suggestions are in the range of 60 or so active roster positions for each team. This increase in active roster size will have several effects, most important to this discussion being the likelihood of "on the bubble" players making the grade. Ultimately, teams will require less "proof on the field" to sign a potential player to their active squads, and will therefore have much more time to evaluate and develop them. This will also have an immediate impact on players who would otherwise be destined for the practice squad. The decision to keep Adrian Arrington or Courtney Roby or Patrick Ramsey or Leigh Torrence or Al Woods will become easier, as more of the developmental players will be allowed to hang around on active squads. Furthermore, the increase in active roster sizes will surely increase the amount of wheeling and dealing teams engage in as preseason comes to an end, ultimately benefitting all of those players who would otherwise be praying to get picked up on a practice squad after being cut. Lastly, an extra two regular season games will help determine which players do not belong on an active roster. Matt Leinart's faults may have been discovered a season earlier. Pierre Thomas' talents may have been recognized (or developed) a season earlier. I think that having players around during the regular season is vastly more useful in determining their long term viability than any preseason game could provide.
As for the training aspects of preseason, I'm not at all convinced that four preseason games does the job, or that two games will have a significantly negative impact on what is accomplished. There is a reason fans and analysts use the phrase "mid-season form." The issue of injuries is deserving of an article entirely on its own, and I plan to give it that. But I at least have to mention that even with four weeks of preseason and training camps, we have seen dozens of significant injuries around the league, some of them season ending. More to point of this article, though, is that I don't believe four preseason games are particularly effective at providing the football training necessary for the highest quality regular season. After five preseason games this year, the Dallas Cowboys offense looked like they had barely practiced. The Saints offense has been questioned as well. So have the Bengals, Giants, Ravens, and others. I saw as many or more missed tackles in week 1 of the regular season this year than I did in any preseason games. For whatever reason (probably the obvious one), players and coaches just seem to take a very different approach to regular season games than the preseason ones. So, despite having "real game situations" for four weeks, the quality of play during the first few weeks of the regular season is never what we might hope. In that case, there's no quality of play argument to be made for moving those final two preseason games into the regular season.
Not that anyone seemed to listen last time, but I again ask that comments be kept on point and not go into arguments for or against the 18 game proposal that are not covered in this article. Fire away.