The curtain fell on the 2019 NFL preseason Thursday night — and judging by the volleys of rotten produce hurled at it by fans, writers and coaches, the NFL may never want to stage that show the same way again.
For decades, it’s felt like the NFL has had a predictable rhythm to how (and how often) starters play. A little in the first game, then a little more, and then the third preseason game is the “dress rehearsal,” when coaches game-plan, starters start, and the fans who paid full price for tickets get treated to something resembling their team. In the context of meaningless August football, this one game on the preseason schedule was the closest thing fans got to the real thing. The fourth preseason game, in which starters rarely played, has been a forgivable afterthought.
But the ugly, pointless football played Thursday night felt unforgivable — because the players fans pay to see barely played in the first three games, either. Even the last bastion of NFL preseason relevance seems to be vanishing. This year’s “dress rehearsals” hardly lived up to their billing. Carolina Panthers starting quarterback Cam Newton left the game after a minor injury. Almost all of the Green Bay Packers’ starters were held out. Houston starter Deshaun Watson got sacked to start the team’s first possession, the Texans lost starting running back Lamar Miller for the season on the next play, then Watson got sacked again, fumbled the ball and headed for the bench without throwing a pass. Indianapolis Colts starter Andrew Luck retired before taking a single preseason rep.
If teams are comfortable going the entire preseason with their starting quarterbacks barely taking the field, the league’s case for making their fans spend the time and money to watch these games is significantly weakened. Perhaps as no surprise, calls to reduce the number of preseason games are now coming from everywhere, from fans on Twitter to major news outlets. It feels like all of a sudden, the whole NFL-watching world has given up on the preseason.
Of course, calls for a shortened NFL preseason are nothing new. Analyst John Clayton called for it in The Washington Post earlier this month — almost two decades after he wrote for ESPN that players’ union representatives had already been pushing for it “for years.”
The year after Clayton wrote that ESPN article, the NFL expanded to 32 teams. Fourteen of those teams’ eventual Week 1 starters led their squad in preseason pass attempts. Even as their union reps were arguing that a four-game preseason was at least one game more than anybody needed, stars like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Daunte Culpepper, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning were out there taking more reps than anybody on their team.
During that 2002 season, 34.4 percent of preseason passes were thrown by quarterbacks who would go on to start Week 1. A decade later, starters’ share of the workload was about the same. But from 2012 to last season, their leaguewide share of pass attempts dropped by 36.5 percent.
This season, it fell even more steeply. Projected Week 1 starters (via OurLads) accounted for just 11.7 percent of pass attempts.1 That’s a 43 percent drop in one year, after more than a decade of consistently giving fans at least a decent look at the most important player on the team.
The same pattern shows up when we look at how many starters have led their team in preseason attempts — and how many starters have brought up the rear. In 2002, 14 of 32 teams’ starting quarterbacks led their team in preseason pass attempts, and in 2012, 13 starters still led their team in preseason throws. But since 2015, no more than three have.
For most of the 2000s and into the middle of this decade, the number of starters who threw the fewest preseason passes on their teams stayed in the low single digits. Last year, it was a full half of the league’s starting QBs.
This year, no starters have thrown the most passes of anyone else on their team, and 22 threw the fewest. In just seven years, we’ve gone from almost half the league mostly playing their starters to over two-thirds the league barely playing them at all.
There’s also reason to believe that the decline of starting QB reps across the league this preseason is not a coincidence. The NFL and its players’ union have begun negotiations for their next collective bargaining agreement, and truncating the preseason is reportedly a major negotiating topic. In that context, coaches and players are incentivized to force the owners’ hands.
Last week, with Luck likely to sit out the third preseason game, Colts head coach Frank Reich and Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy texted before the game and reached a mutual I-won’t-play-my-guys-if-you-won’t truce. A similar detente was reached between Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson and Baltimore Ravens skipper John Harbaugh after their week of joint practices.
In fact, joint practice sessions seem to be where the starters are getting all the reps they’ve been giving up.
“I think [joint practices are] the trend. I think that’s where we’re going. I think that’s the way the league is heading,” Pederson said in a recent press conference. “As coaches, we get to set the situation and control the environment, and sometimes you don’t get those in games. You don’t get that situation in a game, and this way we can control that and work on specific things and get some really good work done with our starters.”
That all makes sense: If a coach really wants to work on the two-minute offense, a preseason game offers no guarantee that a team will even get in a two-minute situation. The same is true for any other situation, matchup or personnel package. What doesn’t make sense, though, is charging fans full price to watch an uncontrolled scrimmage between a bunch of players who likely won’t even make their respective teams.
On Monday, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien suggested that fans could whet their appetite for starter-on-starter action by the league televising joint practices in lieu of two preseason games:
If the coaches, players and fans all feel like the risk of injury has outstripped the value of playing the games, there’s no viable path forward for the four-game preseason. Only one question remains: Whether the coaches, players and fans can persuade the owners to get on a different path.