An August without exhibition games wasn’t so bad. NFL should permanently change preseason

Detroit Free Press

Another training camp is in the books, my 11th covering the Detroit Lions for the Free Press, and as different as this one was, it wasn’t so bad.

The football looked the same. The daily nasal swabs weren’t that uncomfortable, and they did provide some peace of mind knowing I and the people around me were COVID free. And the lack of preseason games? Honestly, I could live with that going forward, though I doubt Lions coach Matt Patricia could.

“I think there’s certainly, on the coaching side of it, there’s a lot that we need from those games,” Patricia said Saturday, before the Lions closed camp with a controlled scrimmage. “A lot of times we’ll put a plan together for coaching communication that has to do with the booth and guys down on the field, and then we’ll take a look at it maybe one way during one preseason game and then switch it for the next preseason game, and see how that communication worked and kind of the adjustments and things like that. So you definitely are, I’m missing that kind of in-game stuff right now.”

Preseason games are plenty valuable, and not just so coaches can work on their in-game communication systems and give their teams a dry run of gameday operations, both home and away.

For players, training camp has always been a time to work into game shape, brush up on fundamentals and try to impress not just the coaches they play for but everyone else around the league.

Without preseason games, they haven’t had that chance this summer.

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“As players we understand this year is special and you really have to do a lot as a young player to stand out, and you don’t get those games, which is unfortunate,” said Lions receiver Danny Amendola. “As a player that went undrafted, I really needed those games coming in so I could kind of make a splash and hopefully make an impact and make a team and get more film out there. We don’t have that film this year, but I feel like the cream always rises to the top and the good players will always either find a home here or find a home somewhere. So they just need opportunity.”

Like Amendola, I believe the undrafted players and late-round picks that are meant to find a home in the NFL eventually will.

They might bounce around a few more practice squads first, or need an injury to catch their break, but there’s too much churn that goes on at the bottom of rosters every year for players fit to make it in the NFL not to get seen.

Beyond the opportunity cost, I fear the lack of preseason games this summer could lead to sloppy play early in the regular season, and it’s undoubtedly put rookies — the Lions’ Jeff Okudah and D’Andre Swift, included — a step behind in their development.

But not having games, and the shortened training camp calendar as a whole, seems to have kept rosters a bit healthier now than in past summers — the Lions suffered one significant injury in training camp, rookie Jashon Cornell tore his Achilles — and that might make for a better product come November and December. 

While I highly doubt this pandemic-altered preseason will become the norm — there’s too much television money at stake for the NFL to completely do away with exhibition games, and the preseason helps generate buzz for the regular season — I hope there’s common ground to be found with a shorter, more fan-friendly preseason.

Four preseason games (or five, in some teams’ cases) seems unnecessary, with two, plus a Hall-of-Fame game, the sweet spot worth settling on.

With a full offseason program and maybe a set of joint practices (that can even be televised and sponsored and gambled on, for profit’s sake), teams would have ample opportunity for player evaluation and to work through all the operational contingencies they need, and players would have enough time to get their bodies ready for the season.

“Older guys probably want less games, younger guys would want more games,” Lions linebacker Christian Jones said. “At the end of the day it’s football. Everybody wants to play, no matter how they’re feeling. If it’s four, if it’s two games, we’re going to go out there and play.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Lions content. 

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