For nearly a decade, Commissioner Roger Goodell periodically has criticized the quality of preseason action with the not-so-subtle goal in mind of sliding the dividing line in the total 20-game season from four preseason games and 16 regular-season games to two and 18. Currently, preseason action needs no criticism; it stinks, and most now agree that it needs to be dramatically reduced.
The problem, of course, is that the NFL Players Association steadfastly (and wisely) refuses to trade two fake games for two real ones. Perhaps more accurately, the NFLPA wants much more than the NFL ever would give to add a pair of regular-season weekends to offset the evaporation of two preseason weeks.
The NFL needs to realize that the time has come to cut the preseason even without a corresponding expansion of the regular season. The current labor deal gives the league the ability to do just that. It’s a power that, as of 2011, some believed the NFL planned to utilize in the hopes of squeezing the players to agree to more regular-season games in order to offset the revenue that would be lost by giving up half of the preseason. But the league has yet to do it, because the league realizes that the threat of reduced preseason revenue, which would eventually be reflected by a smaller salary cap, wouldn’t bait the players into agreeing to grow the pie with more games that count. Put simply, the shrinkage in the pie would hurt them far less than it hurts the owners, because the reduced salary cap gets spread over 53 players per franchise.
With CBA talks currently ongoing, Goodell hasn’t said much if anything publicly about the preseason in 2019. Here’s his most recent quote, from 2017: “I’ve asked every football guy, ‘How many preseason games do we really need to prepare your team and develop players and evaluate players and get yourself ready for the season? And I think that has shifted dramatically in the last three years. I think that coaches and football people think that you could do this in three [games], and I actually think that’s better for the fans. I actually don’t think the preseason games are of the quality that I’m really proud of. From my standpoint, I think that would be a really healthy shift.”
That same August, Goodell said he doesn’t believe preseason games match the quality of the regular season “by any stretch of the imagination.” Also that year, Goodell said, “When I go around to fans, that’s maybe the No. 1 thing I hear. The NFL should do things to the highest possible standards. Preseason games are not that.”
Two years later, it’s gotten worse. And it promises to continue to get worse, as more and more coaches — who nevertheless crave opportunities to get their players ready for September — keep starters in bubble wrap throughout August.
But the owners won’t shrink the preseason because the owners don’t want to give up the revenue without a way to balance it out, through an increased regular season. While expanded playoffs could help offset the lost money resulting from a shortened preseason, growing the field from 12 to 14 teams would add only two extra wild-card games, which probably wouldn’t be enough to make up for the shortfall.
Whether it’s 18 regular-season games or 17 plus expanded playoffs, the owners will want something like that before giving up the TV and ticket money that comes from losing 32 preseason games, reduced quality of those games be damned.
It’s a theme that will continue to emerge every year, in the weeks leading up to Week One of the regular season. With fewer and fewer starters playing, it feels like it’s moving toward critical mass, if not already there. And with the NFL and NFLPA currently negotiating, now is as good a time as any to finally fix the preseason problem, before the stands get even emptier and the interest gets even lower in the month of August.