The off-season has been filled with discussions about upcoming changes to the NFL. Not only is the collective bargaining agreement in doubt for the 2011 season, there are some changes the League wants to make that will affect the future of NFL football.
One of the most debated discussions concerns an extension of the regular season from 16 to 18 games. There are numerous reasons to fear the extended season, as well as a handful of reasons to welcome the change. Although many fans think preseason games are “meaningless,” I argue that losing that time to develop young players will hurt the NFL most.
Remember the 2008 preaseason? The Colts leading tacklers were Jordan Senn, Jamie Silva, and Tim Jennings. Only one of those players is still on the team heading into the 2010 season, but the development of players like these takes place more on the field in these “meaningless” games than at any other time during the year.
All three players were regular contributors on special teams, and all had roles to play as defensive reserves. Giving those players half of the time to develop in games against NFL-level competition, even in meaningless games against other backups, will certainly have an impact on their performance when those players have to come in during the regular season to fill in for an injured starter.
What about Mike Hart, Curtis Painter, Ramon Humber? You think those guys did not benefit from spending time on the field in preseason games? Of course they did.
Ask Jacob Lacey how important it was for him to spend time on the field during actual competition, to put him in a place to be ready to play significant time in 2009. Did the NFL, or did Colts fans have the slightest clue that Lacey would be so good without seeing him play in preseason? He was dominant in preseason, and that dominance and experience helped him make the NFL all-rookie team a year ago.
The NFL has moved into the salary cap era, making it even more important to find players through the draft and free agency than ever before, to remain competitive. The importance of this is no clearer for any team in the NFL than it has been for the Indianapolis Colts.
What is the impact of losing that time to train against the best college football has to offer, against NFL talent? The effects are numerous and widespread, not just for the individual team, but across the league.
It is true that the majority of players who play significant time during the preseason do not have a future in the NFL. It is also true that the cream rises to the top and players who deserve that future, and can benefit a team needing help at a certain position, gives those teams the chance to identify them during that time.
Most NFL training camps and organized team activities are closed to outsiders. The only time teams get a chance to see a panoramic view of young developing talent, that is or could become available following final cuts, is during the preseason.
One of my favorite players to get cut last year was Adrian Grady. I thought he had a great deal of potential, loved his intensity, and was sure that he would make his way onto the final roster. When did I realize all of this? When did I see his potential?
I saw it during the preseason, and so did the rest of the NFL. New England certainly did and snatched him up — he is still there today. No Colts fan likes to give New England more time to identify talent, for sure, but if teams are unable to have the time to develop within, or discover outside talent, the product on the field will suffer.
There are other obvious arguments like injuries, hurting regular season competition more for outliers who have no reason to play in an extra game or two than they do already, players wearing down over a long season, and potentially destroying the significance of NFL statistical records. Those things are more tenuous though as injuries are hard to foresee, most playoff teams (the top seeds anyway) will likely be able to strategically limit the stress on players’ bodies, statistical significance can always be weighted based on the number of games played, and regular season competition tends to be more meaningful to casual fans (more entertaining).
The biggest problem is that casual fans dismiss the importance of that which they do not find entertaining. The importance of developing players, allowing them to improve in a meaningful way before the real games start, is too easy for fans to undervalue.
The impact of losing this time to develop players during the preseason, to identify talent, and to have backups as ready as possible to fill in and make an impact on special teams heading into the regular season does and will matter. It will matter immediately, early in each season, and it will matter in the long-term over years of suffering from a smaller window of evaluating players each preseason. It will also matter to the players trying to prove they belong in the NFL, who use that time to develop a more complete résumé.
The point is, the importance of the time young players, rookies, and players new to a team or system, have to develop and become comfortable is very hard to weigh. It is particularly hard for casual fans to fully understand, but I guarantee you that Bill Polian will not be happy about losing that time — and he will not be alone.
Sure, you will get two more regular season games, but at what cost? My guess is that you will lose overall talent levels across the NFL, and in the end gain very little meaningful competition for a large majority of fans paying to see the games.