Football season officially starts this Thursday with a preseason game between the Chicago Bears and the Baltimore Ravens in Canton, Ohio.
This is the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, a punishment disguised as an honor that lengthens the competitors' preseason by one game. The unfairness of forcing Chicago and Baltimore to play five preseason games while the rest of the league plays four notwithstanding, the past few years have left both fans and organizations wondering whether or not the preseason should be scrapped in its entirety. There are a few reasons for this. For one, it seems like every year, top caliber players suffer season-ending injuries before they even get to play a meaningful snap.
Here's a quick list:
Jordy Nelson (2015)
Kelvin Benjamin (2015)
Tony Romo (2016)
Ryan Tannehill (2017)
Julien Edelman (2017)
There's an interesting similarity between NFL preseason football and the American Hockey League when it comes to injuries. The AHL is notorious for being a bloodbath, and when NHL players get relegated there, conventional wisdom says there's a negative correlation between career length and time spent in the lower league. There are two reasons for this. One, players in the lower league aren't as good and by extension aren't as capable of playing cleanly. Two, the players in the lower league aren't making much money by professional athlete's standards. Because of this, they're hungry to prove themselves so they can move up, turning the best players into targets.
Applying a similar logic to the NFL preseason, NFL rookies and non-stars' situation is even more dire. Final rosters aren't set until September 1st, which means no player on the field has a guaranteed job in August. Of course, players like Carson Wentz and Melvin Gordon and Antonio Brown are locked into their teams, but there are 90 players on a roster at the start of training camp and only 53 roster spots to fill. The NFL has no minor league affiliate. It's either secure a roster spot or find another career. What the NFL ends up with are teams where half the players are taking the field for a glorified practice and the other half are trying to murder one another for a chance at being a third-string NFL safety. As one can imagine, the results are often not pretty.
NFL coaches and managers are wise to this fact however, and often sit their best players. This brings us to the preseason's second issue: entertainment value. Losing players to injury is always horrible, but it's much worse when the game didn't mean anything to begin with. Preseason games add nothing to a team's record and on top of this, there's no correlation between winning in the preseason and making the playoffs.
That's right, whatever winning streak a team carries into the regular season doesn't really seem to matter much for their Super Bowl chances. The games are sloppy, poorly managed, and strangely, very expensive–good seats can cost upwards of $150.
Now, if you're a football nerd, there is some American Idol-like drama in getting to watch your favorite prospects battle for football relevance, but at the end of the day, the coaches already know who the standouts are and probably have their favorites picked out well before August rolls around. Players who have no realistic chance of making the team risk severely injuring themselves because coaches don't want to pull the trigger and cut them before seeing them (the players) in a real game. It'd be one thing if there were a farm league for these players to play in should they get cut, but there isn't.
It's not as though the NFL is lacking in tenacity or competitive spirit. The league is full of compelling storylines that are routinely interrupted by preseason injuries. If the NFL were really invested in fostering young talent, they'd have established a minor league affiliate. As it is, the steady stream of players from college offers NFL owners little incentive to create a developmental league. Instead, what we get as fans is a four game spectacle in which we trade the safety of our favorite players in order to give coaches an extra month to trim their rosters. It doesn't make sense logistically or financially, but no one's ever accused the NFL of being intelligently run.
Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found on Popdust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. Website: https://matthewdclibanoff.journoportfolio.com/ Twitter: @mattclibanoff
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