Saquon Barkley’s spectacular 39-yard carry on his first touch Thursday night against the Browns produced two distinct emotions.
One was exhilaration; a look at a potentially generational talent who could reshape the Giants offense. The other? Exhaustion. A held breath until the moment he faded out of bounds injury free. Take him out, encase him in steel and lock him in John Mara’s office until the games actually count.
This has become the sad exercise, year after year, when a disastrous collision of circumstances force NFL coaches to dangle their best players in a live, preseason setting in order to get them acclimated to game speed. Limited practice time cuts down on reps and increases the need for on-field instructional periods. Fewer reps mean a greater temptation to see them at full-speed against some kind of live defense—a fear that if they don’t, a rookie’s first action in the regular season could be disastrous both physically and mechanically.
Washington saw the downside of this scenario Thursday when second-round pick and projected starter Derrius Guice tore his ACL against the Patriots. His 34-yard run featured a beautiful stiff arm reminiscent of Marshawn Lynch. The hard cut out of the backfield was perfect. There were elements of their offense that were dependent on these skills that now have to be tossed in the garbage until September 2019.
It’s easy to sit around and say that no coach should play any starter in the preseason. Those same people, though, tend to be the same ones complaining about the decline in offensive line play or receiver route-running abilities. At some point, these players need additional field time beyond what is provided at the facility, and the NFL’s middle and lower class sometimes does not have the means or wherewithal to do so.
The formulaic buildup of starters’ reps from the first preseason game to the peak of the third has gone largely unchallenged in NFL circles despite an outcry from coaches about the symptomatic dip in rookie readiness. Is there any compromise? Is there a way to rethink the preseason while still satisfying the league’s desire to financially capitalize on every minute of live gameplay? A sort of reverse-Steve Spurrier scenario where the best players are still conditioned but not exposed to the sport’s 100% injury rate until they’ve had a chance to actually contribute to the regular season?
This is the knot into which the league, the players and the coaches have tied themselves. Coming off a 2017 where injuries to star players vaporized some of the most positive football-related storylines the NFL had to offer, there is no room for another season without young talent generating interest in the game. Over four games in the month of August, coaches are sitting in a house with a flimsy roof hoping the rain doesn’t break through the ceiling and get them wet.
Some of this is fluky and unavoidable. Guice, according to NFL Network, didn’t even think it was a torn ACL Thursday. And maybe the standard two-series, one quarter, two quarter buildup is the most effective strategy. Who knows how many injuries this gradual buildup has prevented over the years?
But until teams try something different, how will we know?