Preseason games are the beginning of the NFL season in many ways. For the first time since February, fans get to see players from their favorite teams going up against one another in full-speed action. New faces get their first action in their team’s uniforms. Unfortunately, these contests, with very limited participation from projected starters and a lot of work from players who are going to be looking for a new gig in a few weeks, often have little pizzazz or satisfaction. Sticking to “vanilla” game plans and plays just aggravates matters. One game that has always been a bit more entertaining, however, has been the third preseason contest. Often referred to as the “dress rehearsal” game, it traditionally sees the most action from the starters and a game plan that shows a bit more similarity to the regular season. They can be on the field for the entire first half or longer, depending on the head coach’s approach. But like many things about the evolving NFL, that whole idea may be overdue for a trip to the dumpster.
While this blog focuses on the Dallas Cowboys, and there are very specific reasons why a change is a good idea for them, there are also some universal things about the NFL that should be discussed first. The biggest is that training camp and preseason no longer serves the purpose it once did. Before the advent of huge money for broadcast rights and the accompanying swelling of player contracts, most NFL players had to hold outside jobs during the offseason just to make ends meet. That, plus the lack of the yearlong training and conditioning that we see now, meant that camp was the time that players who had put little if any work into maintaining their fitness and strength got themselves back into football shape. Now, however, with even the bottom of the roster players making six figure salaries, and stars getting weekly paychecks that exceed most people’s annual earnings, players don’t have to work other jobs. Instead, they spend time in the team facilities or outside programs to stay at or near their regular season levels of conditioning. And that training has also evolved, with workouts and drills that are much better at keeping the players in shape.
As recently as 1977, the preseason was six games long. As with general conditioning, the extra time was thought to be needed to get schemes installed and build the necessary teamwork and chemistry for the real games. The following year, it was cut to four to add two games to what had been a fourteen game regular season. It did not turn out to hurt the product at all.
Along with the physical side of things, the mental aspect has taken leaps and bounds for players, with touchpads and computers replacing paper playbooks, and enormous video libraries for players to study both their own performance, how that fits with the rest of their team, and what the opponents do to counter. Now, by the time players get to camp, they are (or at least should be) far ahead of where their predecessors were.
Some teams, especially with major coaching changes, still need more preseason game action than others. But the Cowboys have already demonstrated that they are not one of them. In the first two weeks of the preseason, their starters have looked ready to go. The ones on offense have scored on both the drives they have seen, and the starting defense only yielded one touchdown when a muffed punt gave the Los Angeles Rams a short field.
There is no reason for the Dallas starters to go out and play a half or more this Saturday. If they play at all, one or two series should be enough, just to keep them a bit sharper than if they sat out both the remaining games. And sitting it out completely should be considered. Historically, starters have sat for all or most of the final game anyway. It is time to apply that to the third one.
The biggest reason of all is injuries. Preseason games are full speed, and with all teams being cautious with even small nicks to their starters and key backups, there are always going to be some players facing the Cowboys that are fighting for their own football future. They are going to be giving it full effort, and in football, that can mean damage to the players. Dak Prescott is the obvious player for whom the team must avoid injury at all costs. Any reduced preparation time in live game action is not worth the added risk that each play brings. But he is not the only one. Maliek Collins is just one example, a player who has struggled with injuries in his career to date. This year, he has been healthy. ESPN thinks he has been the Cowboys’ training camp MVP.
In every situation of camp, Collins has been difficult to block, from team drills to one-on-one pass-rush work. In his first three seasons, Collins has been solid, recording 10.5 sacks, but he has battled through foot and knee injuries. He has had his first fully healthy offseason and training camp and has reaped the rewards. Rod Marinelli said the three technique is the engine that makes the defense go. With an improved interior pass rush, the Cowboys’ defense could take a jump into elite territory. -- Todd Archer
Why force him to do more in meaningless contests?
Rookies often gain much from preseason work, but in Tony Pollard, the Cowboys have a player who is being treated more like a starter, and he has fully lived up to that. In the win over the Rams, he was the star of the first series, capping it off with an excellent 14-yard touchdown run right up the middle. Time for him to get the bubble wrap.
Having the starters on the sidelines would also allow the team to maximize the greatest value of preseason, which is to evaluate backups and bubble players. Those individuals don’t get as many reps in practice. As we near the regular season, that will just get more pronounced as the practices focus more and more on getting ready for scores that count in the standings. Let Cooper Rush and Mike White handle the QB chores. Find out who will be the special teams aces. Figure out who is roster worthy, which players you can target to get through waivers and onto the practice squad, and identify the unfortunates who will see their time in Dallas coming to an end soon.
Of course, these are all decisions that will primarily be made by head coach Jason Garrett, and he has some specific ideas about how to go about business. Sometimes, he can be a bit old-fashioned about things. That may include a belief that the “dress rehearsal” is still needed.
Or maybe not. While the Cowboys still took a traditional approach to the third preseason game in 2017, with Prescott playing nearly half the offensive snaps, 2018 was completely different. Not only did Prescott sit that game out, and the next, so did Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, in addition to Travis Frederick who was still in the process of finding out about his GBS. It may have been a new approach, or it may have been precautionary due to the lack of offensive linemen to protect him. Given that Smith and Martin both missed the last game, there may be similar logic in play this year.
We will see this week. While a game without many of the Cowboys starters may not be very entertaining, it could also make the real games a lot more enjoyable by making more of them wins.