Cover Two: Changing the preseason format and players under pressure
The NFL preseason is only a few days old, and malaise is already setting in ahead of a long, tedious slate of exhibition games. It may tease out the lead-up to the regular season too much, but there are lessons to be learned from preseason action as players fight for jobs and new coaches install their schemes.
In this week's Cover Two, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar offer up the changes they would make to the preseason's unpopular format and break down some players worth watching closely as real-live football commences around the league.
How would you change the format of the preseason?
Chris Burke: Other than destroying it with a fire hotter than 1,000 suns? I'd certainly shorten it up, which is the obvious answer. Maybe it is unrealistic to ask the NFL to adopt college football's strategy of skipping straight to the regular-season schedule, but the four-game (and in some cases, five-game) preseason slate continues to be tiresome.
It is particularly so with an increasing number of teams scheduling joint practices during camp. Nearly half the league will participate in shared sessions this August, and I'd venture coaching staffs get as much or more out of those outings than the official exhibition games. Let's scrap the first week of presesason games and help all 32 teams get a couple practices lined up against another team instead.
One thing I definitely would not do that I saw suggested elsewhere this week: assign any added value to the preseason, whether as a playoff seeding tiebreaker or otherwise. We don't need to tread into MLB All-Star Game territory here, where some key element of the postseason setup is based on meaningless games. If the league wants the fans more involved in August, stop charging full price for tickets and parking and food.
And just in case we need an out-of-the-box idea in this space, the NFL could swipe MLB's spring training concept. Rather than have every team train at its own individual facility, then travel for games like in the regular season, just move everyone to Florida or Hawaii or London or the moon for three to four weeks. Travel would be easier and fans could schedule their entire vacations around seeing multiple preseason games.
Doug Farrar: Make every penalty reviewable. I don't actually have a huge problem with the current preseason format. Yes, you're going to see some unspectacular football, but you're going to get that in the regular season if the Browns play the Jaguars. And given the current restrictions to contact in preseason practices in the current CBA, the preseason has become more important than ever when it comes to the growth and evaluation of young players. However, I do think the preseason, which is frequently used as a testing lab for overall concepts, could be used to swing the Competition Committee in the direction of making every penalty reviewable. I remain amazed that every year at the owners meetings, the men in charge strike down the movement for every penalty to be put under the league's guidelines for coach's challenge and review, specifically personal fouls and pass interference calls.
It's something that Bill Belichick has been proposing for years, and other coaches have come on board, but the committee isn't buying the need for it.
“We looked at a lot of different fouls and the standard is that it would be so difficult to officiate with replay because you have two separate standards and they're so vastly separate,” said Rams coach Jeff Fisher, a longtime member of the committee, in March. “It's our responsibility to improve the quality of officiating, and we can take care of some of these issues on the field. We frame-by-framed a lot of [plays] this spring and it's just not something we support.”
I'm not sure what the issue is. Former VP of Officiating and current FOX Sports analyst Mike Pereira is a longtime advocate of the idea that no judgment calls should be reviewable, but that's at least understandable: Pereira was protecting his officials, some of whom would not fare well under the harsh light of expansive replay. But the league's opposition to a more transparent process remains baffling.
Here's how to fix it: Give the coaches the same number of challenges, but make everything reviewable in the preseason. Take it out of the realm of the hypothetical, and put it into the realm of the practical. I would bet that after one preseason like this, the league would vote this in during the next year's meetings by a fairly overwhelming margin.
Which player's preseason stats should we assign the most importance (so, more than zero) to?
Burke: Robert Griffin III. He's also Exhibit A for why picking apart stats alone is a mistake—Griffin finished his first preseason game 4-of-8 for 36 yards, but Pierre Garcon cost him a completion, about 70 yards and possibly a touchdown by somehow dropping a wide-open deep pass. Crank that final line up to 5-of-8 for 100 yards and a touchdown, and suddenly RGIII is an early preseason star.
But more to the point here, Washington needs to see from Griffin the type of progress one would expect from a fourth-year quarterback. He's in his second season under the current coaching staff and is almost three years removed from his devastating playoff injury (though an ankle issue slowed him last year). The excuses should be gone. Griffin needs to produce results.
Farrar: In general, running backs, which is good news for Lions fans who were encouraged by Ameer Abdullah's strong showing in his first NFL contest. The rookie out of Nebraska gained 67 yards on seven carries, including a 45-yard run in which he showed his ability to make quick cuts through gaps. The second-round pick stands to improve a Detroit running game that has been average throughout the Matthew Stafford era, and among all positions, there's a greater statistical correlation between running back success in the preseason and the regular season. Makes sense, really—quarterbacks and receivers have to deal with more concepts when the regular season hits and defensive schemes become more complex.
Running backs will see a few more run blitzes and line stunts, but for the most part, if you have speed to and through the hole, you're all good. Last year, undrafted rookie Branden Oliver ran for 161 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries in the preseason, which gave him enough equity with the coaches to lead his team in rushing attempts and yards in the 2014 regular season. If you want to know where your team's next star is coming from based on preseason performance, check the backfield.
Which starters have the most to lose from a bad set of preseason games?
Burke: Miami's offensive line. So far, so good here. The Dolphins' entire first-team offense was mostly sharp in limited action against Chicago on Thursday. A pair of holding penalties (one on Jason Fox, another on Billy Turner) disrupted that unit's opening drive, but quarterback Ryan Tannehill and co. still managed to find the end zone after a 14-play, eight-minute possession. Tannehill had time to throw—he was 6-of-7 with a TD—and Lamar Miller found clear sailing on a 27-yard run.
This is a team many people believe can challenge the Patriots in the AFC East, but the questions along the O-line are reason for pause. With a talent like Evan Mathis still out there in free agency, missteps from Turner and fellow guard Dallas Thomas could force the front office to make a move. Thursday's performance might ease some concerns.
Farrar: Guard Ronald Leary and tackle Doug Free, Cowboys. Basically, the guy on the Cowboys' starting offensive line who has a sub-par preseason or slips at all in practice is going to have to deal with La'el Collins taking his job. The LSU star went undrafted due to a complicated off-field situation this spring, but he had first-round talent as a power blocker, and he certainly showed it on this play in Dallas's preseason opener against the Chargers:
Ouch. That's No. 71 with the cockroach block that gave Chargers rookie Chi Chi Ariguzo, an undrafted free agent out of Northwestern, a rude welcome to the NFL. Leary and Free are the relative weak links on the best line in the league, and Collins is going to chase one of them down sooner than later.