Commissioner Roger Goodell heralded the schedule alterations as “a monumental moment” in league history, but debates rage and theories abound about the importance of exhibition football and how necessary it is for key players. The NFL and NFLPA agreed to the changes at a time when consumer demand and interest in exhibition football was bottoming out — as always, follow the money — and when prominent coaches were calling for fewer fake games and a more holistic approach to the preseason. And now — with more teams than ever choosing to sit top players for the entire preseason, or nearly all of it — some prominent coaches are again calling for change and rethinking their own approach to the summer after watching their ugly game film Monday morning.
“On second thought, if I had to do it over again right now, I would say, yeah, I would have played starters one or two drives in the preseason,” said Nick Sirianni, coach of the reigning NFC champion Eagles, after a blemish-filled Week 1 victory at New England in which his vaunted offense sputtered. The Eagles looked slightly better in Thursday’s mistake-filled win over the Minnesota Vikings, but the sideline disagreement between quarterback Jalen Hurts and receiver A.J. Brown, and the box score — which showed 48 rushing attempts and only 23 passes — suggested an offense still shaking off the cobwebs. Sirianni admitted he was jotting notes to himself on the sidelines during Philadelphia’s opening game about possibly playing MVP-candidate Hurts more in the 2024 preseason.
Sirianni and Hurts had plenty of company.
Every rule change and point of emphasis in this league is implemented to enhance scoring and the downfield passing game. Yet only six quarterbacks — Tua Tagovailoa, Kirk Cousins, Matthew Stafford, Mac Jones, Derek Carr and Jared Goff — threw for even 250 yards in Week 1, while 15 teams had starting quarterbacks who threw for 200 or less. The collective QB rating was a morbid 83.6, second worst for an opening weekend since 2010 and continuing a pointed trend during this three-year sample. You could point to the number of inexperienced starters, but vets like Josh Allen, Hurts, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Daniel Jones, Dak Prescott, Ryan Tannehill, Russell Wilson and Geno Smith were among the most tepid performers at the position.
A shocking 14 teams scored 17 points or less in regulation, and sloppy football — even by Week 1 standards — prevailed. Turnovers spiked, sacks soared, and yards per play and points per drive plummeted. (You have to go back to the relative dark ages of 2010 to find fewer points per drive in an opening week). At least half the games felt effectively decided by halftime, and despite some garbage time scores, seven games were still decided by 14 or more points.
In my estimation, just one-eighth of the Week 1 slate was compelling for the better part of four quarters. (My list includes Lions-Chiefs, Jaguars-Colts, Dolphins-Chargers and Eagles-Patriots; we could argue Bills-Jets I suppose, but the QB play was awful and Aaron Rodgers’s season-ending injury four snaps in trumped everything else).
Ravens Coach John Harbaugh, a Super Bowl winner who championed curtailing the preseason in 2016 as this movement gained steam, could have been speaking for several coaches as he detailed areas where his offense needed to make gains. (Baltimore mustered 265 net yards against the rebuilding Texans, while amassing 106 penalty yards). Harbaugh’s laundry list included such rudimentary tasks as “just being on the same page, where we were lined up, timing up motions, getting out of the huddle as quickly as you wanted to, at times. [Also] route running, blocking, schemes, which linebacker we were working towards.”
The Ravens-Texans game was one of two in Week 1 that lacked a single passing touchdown, while four games featured just one passing TD. Half the Week 1 games had two or fewer passing scores. The opening week included 37 passing touchdowns, and, gulp, 25 picks. I asked longtime NFL personnel executive and current analyst Mike Lombardi if any of this surprised him.
“Not at all,” he said, immediately pointing to the low summer workloads. “Nobody practices.”
As in 2016, Harbaugh is again among the loudest voices for change, with his concerns ranging far beyond just quality of play. Once again, injuries marred an opening weekend for him. The Andy Reid disciple followed his mentor’s preseason mantra of relying on veterans, until he lost top running back J.K. Dobbins to an ACL tear during a preseason game in 2021. Since then, Harbaugh has adopted the Sean McVay approach of basically sitting everyone of any import, yet the Ravens lost Dobbins again for the year in Week 1, and star safety Marcus Williams probably for most of it. The Ravens will head to Cincinnati without their starting left tackle and center after Sunday’s costly victory over Houston.
“It’s like being on a hamster wheel,” Harbaugh said of varying his preseason playing time principles. “You’re on the hamster wheel, and you’re not getting anywhere. And really, that’s kind of how this injury conversation is going in the NFL. I think progress is being made, for sure, but looking at whether you play in the preseason or don’t, how many reps you take in practice, or you don’t take … We’re all ramping our guys now. Is there a long enough ramp, really, to ramp the guys properly? I’d say no.
“So, I think the people that are doing the studies on this, they know that, too. So, what they’re going to have to do eventually is they’re going to have to change the whole thing — the whole preseason process — and update it. … They know that it’s not enough time to get guys ready to play in that short preseason period.”
Harbaugh expressed confidence that the league and union can make meaningful changes to better usher teams and players into the regular season. Some of the sloppiness is probably inevitable — injuries, a lack of offensive timing and precision — but in a copycat league, other coaches are undoubtedly pondering the same things as Sirianni and Harbaugh.
It’s not a stretch to assume some coaches may play their starters a bit more next summer, and the push for more controlled joint practices will grow even louder. More practices and fewer faux games might become the norm, seeking an elusive balance between providing ample individual and collective work and mitigating the physical disasters inherent in this violent, collision sport. For now, few seem satisfied with the state of preseason affairs.