Is it time to sit starters in preseason?

Pete Dougherty
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One of Mike McCarthy's primary goals for training camp is to have his Green Bay Packers ready for a fast start.

Those games early in the season count just as much as the late games. Losing the opener and (starting 1-2) each of the last three years just hasn't cut it for a Packers coach and team who want home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Now, let's be clear: McCarthy's emphasis on a quick start didn't directly lead to Jordy Nelson's season-ending knee injury last Sunday at Pittsburgh. McCarthy's policy for handling starters in the preseason is in line with the rest of the NFL, and he in fact likely falls toward the conservative end of the spectrum.

Also, Nelson was injured on the first drive, so even if McCarthy had played his starters only one series, Nelson would have been on the field. And Nelson tore his ACL without getting hit, so he could have suffered the same misfortune in practice, where there's no tackling.

But McCarthy's mindset speaks to the dilemma NFL head coaches face in the preseason. And it truly is a dilemma — that is, two equally undesirable alternatives.

There's still nothing like playing a game, even preseason, to prepare players for when it counts. So the less you play your starters in the preseason, the more you risk losing early, especially in the opener.

But playing your starters and especially key players, even for only a couple series, also carries huge risk. Injuries are in the nature of the game more than any of the other major sports.

So maybe it's time for radical change. Maybe teams, especially those with a clear-cut veteran starting quarterback, have to seriously consider sitting most of their starters in the preseason. Or, at minimum, play them in only one preseason game, say the third, and for maybe only the first half. That's it.

I know. Easy to say. Hard to do.

Lose a game or two early — and that's a real risk — you and your fan base are questioning the call. But as advantageous as it is to start fast and maximize your chances of playing at home for the playoffs, the highest priority is good health at the end of the year. And if sitting your starters for almost all the preseason improves those odds, then maybe it's time NFL teams started doing it routinely.

Yeah, the Packers' slow start last season kept them from hosting the NFC championship game. But look at their health at the end of the season. They were playing their best football, and going into the NFC championship game had only one likely starter, B.J. Raji, on injured reserve — they'd lost him to a torn biceps in training camp. Every player on their 53-man roster was available.

So even though the Packers were on the road, they were full strength and had that game all but won. Their exemplary health served its purpose.

I couldn't help but notice that in the Packers' preseason opener at New England, the Patriots sat 13 of their preferred starters. There also were questions right up until the game whether quarterback Tom Brady would play — he did, for two series (seven plays). Many of those were injury scratches, but you have to think coach Bill Belichick was playing it extremely conservatively.

Mark Murphy, the Packers' president and CEO, brings an uncommon perspective to the issue. He played in the league for eight years, so he knows it from the football side. As Packers president and CEO and a member of the NFL's Management Council he also knows it from the administrative side of a team's and the league's perspectives.

"We've looked into the injuries in the preseason," he said Tuesday. "It's a concern."

In a 15-minute conversation on the subject, Murphy talked of the anxiety he and general manager Ted Thompson feel watching the starters in the preseason.

"When I saw Jordy go down like he did, I was just, 'Oh no,'" Murphy said.

But Murphy doesn't think it's feasible competitively for a team to sit many or most of its starters for the entire preseason. Their opening opponent or two would have a big edge in skills like blocking, which is hard to practice at 100 percent game-like conditions, and tackling, which NFL teams don't practice live because of the injury risk.

"There's nothing like game speed," Murphy said. "You can practice all you want, but it's not the same.''

Assuming the disadvantage is too great, what's the next-best alternative? Sitting most starters for all but one half of one preseason game. Game 3 probably would be best, so any less severe injuries would have two weeks to heal before the season starts for real. But Game 4 could be a possibility too.

Either way, minimize the injury risk from three or four preseason games to one.

Now, this wouldn't work for everybody. Any team with a young quarterback will want to play him more in the preseason. Same for anyone with a new head coach or coordinator and new scheme. But for many teams, probably most, less could mean more in the long run.

As for a possible solution via NFL scheduling, it doesn't look like anything is coming soon. A change in the current format of four preseason and 16 regular-season games has to be negotiated by the NFL and its players' union. The current CBA doesn't expire until 2020, so it could take until then for the sides to discuss the issue seriously.

Murphy said an 18 and two format has been a non-starter with the union because of player safety — the injury risk in regular season games is greater than preseason. And as fullback John Kuhn said Tuesday, "I don't think you can prove anything with 17 (or 18) games in the regular season that you can't prove in 16. That's just my opinion."

But dropping to two preseason and 16 regular season games probably won't have legs either. The players get 55 percent of league TV revenue and 45 percent of local revenue, so the loss of ticket sales and TV rights for those two games means less money in the pot. Hard to see the players giving themselves a pay cut.

So there might be no good solution here.

On one hand, preseason games are a must for player evaluation. It's where the bottom half of the roster wins and loses jobs.

"It's very difficult to say the games are meaningless," Kuhn said. "The games are meaningless to some (players)."

They also help starters get ready for the real thing. But coaches have to weigh that against the risk of the kind of catastrophic injury the Packers sustained last week. Pittsburgh did too when it lost maybe the league's best center, Maurkice Pouncey, for half the season or more to a broken ankle.

The NFL has gone through major changes in the last couple decades and even recent years. It wasn't that long ago when NFL teams conducted two-a-days almost every day for the first two weeks of camp. That looks barbaric and idiotic in hindsight.

So while it seems inconceivable a team would sit many or most of its starters in the preseason, or at least play them for part of only one game, a Chip Kelly-type coach thinking outside the box might give it a shot. And who knows? Maybe 10 or 20 years from now, we'll look back and wonder what they were thinking in 2015.

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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