For journeyman players and NFL rookies, the final week of preseason is the last live-action audition. For veteran starters, it’s the last chance to get hurt in a meaningless game. Because of this, NFL teams generally won’t play their established starters this week, and they will almost certainly not risk injury for their franchise quarterbacks. But in recent seasons, NFL teams have taken this preseason risk management one step further: Quarterbacks hardly play any preseason games anymore, let alone the last one.
The preseason pass attempts of the game’s top quarterbacks are down precipitously. Only one starting quarterback is currently listed among the top 10 in preseason pass attempts: Jameis Winston of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (69 attempts) — perhaps not by coincidence, he’s also the only one with an HBO camera crew documenting his summer.
Of course, taking fewer snaps on the field doesn’t guarantee that a quarterback will avoid injury — the Dallas Cowboys lost Tony Romo for more than half of last year’s regular season even though he saw only six passes’ worth of preseason action. But coaches seem to be placing special emphasis on keeping star quarterbacks out of harm’s way as much as possible in trivial summer games.
To measure this, we looked at the 10 passers1 who threw the most yards over the past 10 seasons — nine of whom are still active and starting on NFL teams.
From 2007 to 2012, these quarterbacks — as a group — generally averaged around 45 attempts each preseason. But from 2013 to 2017,2 the number has steadily dropped. In 2015, the group averaged 26.9 preseason pass attempts. In 2017, that number has fallen to 18.8.3
Among that group, Aaron Rodgers has thrown only 22 passes in the past two Green Bay preseasons combined. The Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger has just 26 pass attempts in that span. The preseason throws for those two quarterbacks over the 2007 and 2008 preseasons were 113 and 74, respectively. And changing teams doesn’t seem to have an impact: Jay Cutler, who briefly retired in the offseason before getting a job in Miami, has thrown just 14 passes for the Dolphins. By comparison, he threw 42 for the 2014 Chicago Bears.
One logical assumption may be that this group of quarterbacks is getting older and thus playing less each preseason, but that theory doesn’t hold. To test this, we looked at the 10 best seasons by a quarterback age 38 or older since 20014 — excluding the two recent ones by Tom Brady. The average number of preseason pass attempts among this group was 40.1, including 54 by Peyton Manning in 2014, 49 by Brett Favre in 2007 and 58 by a 41-year-old Vinny Testaverde in 2004. This suggests that the trend of star QBs throwing less in preseason is less a matter of age and more a philosophical shift in the league.
NFL teams are clearly aware that the most prized assets need to be protected. The Minnesota Vikings did not have Adrian Peterson log a single preseason carry for five years. And the Denver Broncos this year have barely played star pass rusher Von Miller, the key to their fearsome defense. But that hasn’t stopped preseason injuries from derailing seasons before they start. Last weekend saw severe injuries to New England Patriots top wide receiver Julian Edelman, Bears No. 1 wideout Cam Meredith and Kansas City Chiefs top running back Spencer Ware. On the defensive side of the ball, the Cowboys reportedly lost starting middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens for eight weeks with a fractured knee. And last week started with Odell Beckham Jr.’s status for the regular season becoming a question mark when the New York Giants’ biggest star sprained his ankle.
NFL coaches seem to be enacting unofficially at the quarterback position what some around the game are advocating for league-wide — cutting the preseason in half. NFL team owners and the league’s player union have been stuck on whether that means essentially trading a reduction in preseason games for more contests in the regular season. But this month, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told Giants fans that the league would consider cutting preseason games unconditionally.
Risking a quarterback’s health seems especially unwise given that teams today are unwilling to even open up their regular-season playbook out of fear of revealing secrets — in other words, the tactics being practiced are as irrelevant as the final score. So it’s no surprise that the predictive value of preseason performance has been steadily declining for nearly a quarter of a century. Some teams have stopped charging regular-season prices for preseason games, largely because of the poor quality of play.
Perhaps the best approach is for teams to treat all preseason games, no matter the number, how they do the final exhibition — use them as a proving ground for backups and the bottom of the roster. That way, starters at all positions, not only quarterbacks, are protected from injury. But then, with the uniforms and stadiums the only NFL-like things about these games, all teams would have to price preseason tickets accordingly.
CORRECTION (Aug. 29, 5:20 p.m.): An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Adrian Peterson did not log a carry for five postseasons with the Minnesota Vikings. It was five preseasons.