There is a lot more going on at the Combine than players running drills, enduring medical exams and being interviewed by teams. There is also significant legwork being done by the biggest power brokers in the NFL behind closed doors.
The NFL competition committee has been holding meetings and one of the primary topics of discussion has been something that has been debated by owners, coaches and players alike – getting rid of the annual fourth preseason game.
For a sports entertainment entity that has the national (and growing international) sports audience’s fervent love, there are only a couple of things the NFL does that draws little to no interest from those other than their most ardent face-painting supporters – the Pro Bowl and, to a much greater extent, the final preseason game.
In recent years, the fourth preseason game – or, if you were the Vikings last year or the Packers this year, the fifth preseason game – has become something of almost a universal disconnect. There was a time when the final preseason game was more critical to those end-of-the-roster players who were trying to keep their NFL dreams alive. Any chance players on the bubble could get to make a final impression was important, perhaps even career-saving.
However, in the era of OTAs and minicamps in addition to training camp and the preseason, teams have a much better handle on what a player’s strengths and weaknesses are and which players will comprise the final roster, rendering the longstanding argument for four preseason games (other than the lack of revenue sharing) moot.
Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy spoke to reporters last week about the closed door meetings the competition committee was holding as a precursor to the March owners meetings and said that a lot of discussion was directed toward reducing the number of preseason games to three.
This isn’t a new concept. The NFL has looked at reducing the number of preseason games to three for some time. However, that was typically associated with adding another regular season game – a concept met with mixed emotions by both veteran players (one more game of wear and tear) and owners and coaches (half the league would have nine home games and half would have eight).
But, the growing disdain among fans of watching – or perhaps more importantly, not watching – a fourth preseason game may be forcing the NFL to listen to its audience.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy told reporters in Indianapolis that safety is also a concern. And McCarthy admitted that a fifth preseason game will change his offseason approach.
“Absolutely. This is my first time through it. I’ve never coached in the game. Not as an assistant,” he said. “I’ve actually spent quite a bit of time looking at the schedule, getting feedback from people who have been in the game, transportation all the way through. It’ll definitely change as a training camp. It’ll change the stress points up in training camp. The more and more you get into it as far as scheduling and how you train your team, the stress points of each training camp are important to be in line with anticipating them, but you also have to be able to react to them.”
The final game of the preseason is played on a Thursday, which gives teams a short week of preparation and almost guaranteed not to include starters or players with minor injuries.
Other topics of conversation by the competition committee included concussion talks and extra points.
The rate of diagnosed concussions jumped sharply in 2015, but many believe that is the byproduct of increased knowledge of what may or may not be an actual concussion and, after decades of denial, the NFL taking steps to make sure that players who do appear to suffer head trauma need to be checked out thoroughly before being allowed back on the field. The moving of the extra point to the 15-yard line was a one-year experiment when it was passed last year. The expectation is that it will be made permanent at the next owners meeting.
While both of those latter measures will carry much more weight with the players and fans of the game, the primary issue that ends up being a long-debated topic will be the elimination of the fourth week of preseason games, giving teams two full weeks to prepare for the regular-season opener and allow teams to set their 53-man rosters and practice squads with a little more time to assess the talent they have or want to acquire in that two-week period.
It’s rare when fans can have a voice in shaping policy of the NFL. But it would seem clear by the lack of ratings and, in most cases, the lack of fans in the stands that, while the NFL does a lot of things right when it comes to showcasing its product, the 21st Century football consumer has little to no interest in the fourth week of preseason games and would likely rather have a two-week window between the end of the preseason and the start of the regular season not include another game in which the winner and loser don’t matter in the standings.