The NFL has defanged its preseason. Interest hasn’t suffered.
September 06, 2022
Photo by The Associated Press
The NFL preseason is over, and in the absence of revelatory developments, you’re left with one frivolous takeaway: Tom Brady has a life. Brady, the most prolific winner in league history, took an 11-day personal leave from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in August. It was unusual. However, in the most overanalyzed sport on Earth, it managed to elude overreaction.
Just a few years ago, the absence of a marquee player would have been treated like an emergency. Perhaps Brady, a seven-time champion who tolerated retirement for just 40 days this offseason, is the only person who could take a break without inducing panic. But the situation still serves as evidence of the easygoing preseason mentality that has overtaken the NFL.
Although the sport will always take itself too seriously, it has operated for a decade within player safety guardrails that limit mandatory offseason training, minimize contact during practice and outlaw the notorious two-a-day sessions. Two successful negotiations of the collective bargaining agreement have only enhanced the emphasis. And in 2020, the league plowed through the first year of the coronavirus pandemic despite strict protocols that included closing team facilities for nearly the entire offseason. In every case, interest in the game has not suffered.
Discerning eyes notice the differences and worry the quality of play has diminished. For certain, the pacing of the season is different as more teams ramp up slowly and seek to peak at the right time during the expanded 17-game season. The lead-up to showtime — Week 1 — means less than it ever has.
In the last six weeks, plenty of things happened across the league. Most of it was obligatory and forgettable. Granularity reigned. The restrained practices and lackluster exhibition games reduced true competition to the bottom halves of 53-man rosters. Teams were accustomed to sifting through mountains of preseason information to evaluate players. Sometimes, they must play hunches.
All the while, the superstars ease into action. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers didn’t play in any preseason games in 2021, and he wound up winning his fourth MVP award. Despite having to navigate life without wide receiver Davante Adams, he didn’t throw a pass in any of the three preseason games this year, either. He needed the practice time with his young receivers, but if he had decided to take a family vacation with Brady, would it really have mattered?
“It’s all personal,” Brady said, explaining his time off. “You know, everyone has got different situations they’re dealing with, so we all have really unique challenges to our life. I’m 45 years old, man. There’s a lot of s--- going on. So you’ve just got to try to figure out life the best you can. You know, it’s a continuous process.”
To me, someone four months from turning 45, those remarks felt like the truest words Brady has ever spoken. Certainly, the normally guarded quarterback was as frank as he gets. He’s a husband and father of three whose family thought he was done with football back in February. It seems he has returned with a few everyman conditions. If Brady and the Bucs remain elite, that will add another dimension to the conversation about the appropriate amount of prep time necessary to flourish.
Brady arrived in Tampa Bay as a free agent before the 2020 season. Even with pandemic restrictions hindering the chemistry-building process, Brady led his new team to a Super Bowl title. Every team was at a disadvantage that year, but the Bucs were a talented yet mediocre bunch adjusting to the preferences of a legendary new quarterback who hadn’t played well at the end of the 2019 season. They thrived anyway. What they lacked in practice reps, they made up for with talent, solid coaching and Brady’s reservoir of championship experience.
For traditionalists, a streamlined practice approach remains difficult to understand. Dave Robinson, a Hall of Fame linebacker who played his best years with the Packers before ending his career in Washington, laughs and thinks about two of his former coaches, Vince Lombardi and George Allen. He remembers playing six preseason games, not three. And his coaches didn’t hold back the starters like they do now.
“They both told us that no one has their job guaranteed,” Robinson, 81, said. “All positions were open. We used to chuckle at Lombardi and say to each other, ‘You think he’s talking about Bart Starr, too?’ Maybe the star quarterback was safe, but for the rest of us, those preseason games were real. We rotated, and every linebacker would get a shot against the No. 1 offense on the other team. If I didn’t do well, I knew not to look forward to being a starter. You played your heart out.”
Robinson is the vice chairman of the Pro Football Retired Players Association. He knows what playing the game so hard can do to the body, and he has lived through the fight to compel the NFL to provide better benefits and resources for retired players. Still, the competitor in him doesn’t enjoy the current cautiousness.
“The game should be played hard,” Robinson said. “You watch now, and the first two or three games [of the regular season] aren’t sharp. People get hurt because they aren’t ready to play. That’s just one old man’s opinion, but that’s what I see.”
Robinson praises the NFL overall and says, “The league is strong.” It is not his league, though. He misses his league. He was such a fierce linebacker that former coach Bill Parcells likes to refer to him as “Lawrence Taylor before there was Lawrence Taylor.” He helped Green Bay win three NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowls, and he did it one punishing play at a time.
“I’m not saying that was better for you, health-wise,” Robinson said. “I knew of some guys who carried smelling salts in their socks. That was overboard. But now, they went overboard negotiating out almost all the contact. It’s a game of hitting and getting hit. You’ve got to get used to it.”
But they’re playing a different game now. The athletes are better and richer, and the league sets revenue records almost every year. The mind-set of player disposability is still a problem, but the success demands more attention to health and safety. Risk mitigation will keep dominating the preseason.
There’s no need to tuck away smelling salts for practice anymore. If a player tries to stash anything in his socks, it will be a cellphone.
Read the original article on The Washington Post.