Football’s preseason has certainly changed.
When I was a kid, NFL teams played 14 regular-season games and six exhibitions. Starters played a ton in those exhibitions. Starting jobs and roster spots were legitimately up for grabs. Practices were like the Roman Colosseum: Hard-fought and ugly. The Oklahoma drill tested your mind and wrecked your body. At Steelers training camp, there was always the chance Fats Holmes would pull a gun.
These days, the citizens fret over T.J. Watt playing a single defensive series: “What if he gets hurt?”
Watt will. Maybe not Saturday night when the Steelers host Buffalo in preseason “action.” But sooner or later. It’s inevitable.
All the roster spots might not be predetermined, but the starting jobs are. Mike Tomlin knew what the top of his depth chart would be before training camp started.
Preseason wasn’t better now, or then. It’s just different.
Part of that evolution is the NFL going from 12 to 14 to 16 to 17 regular-season games. It will be 18 soon enough, with two preseason games. Someday it will be 20, with no exhibitions. Start the real games cold, like in college. (But without the buffer of a creampuff opener like big schools schedule. Like Alabama hosting Middle Tennessee.)
Lip service is paid to player safety. But players constantly bargain that away for more money.
If player safety was paramount, the NFL would employ the Guardian Cap during games. Those are the squishy, soft-shell helmet covers used by teams in practice. Testing shows that wearing the Guardian Cap produces a 10% reduction in force impact.
But the NFL won’t use them because they look funny. Helmets with logos are one of the league’s trademarks. Safety isn’t worth neutralizing that.
The NFL is trying to make kickoffs safer. This season, if returners fair-catch a kickoff, the ball gets placed on the 25-yard line as if a touchback occurred. Nearly 60% of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks last year. This minimizes returns ever further.
Special-teams aficionados (gag) are against the new rule. But do you want increased safety or not? Is Will Smith going to have to make another movie? (God, I hope not.)
The NFL should adopt the XFL’s kickoff method.
The ball is kicked off from the 30, not the 35. Less touchbacks.
The receiver stands at approximately his 20-yard line.
The receiving team’s other players line up at their 30. The kicking team’s other players line up five yards away, at the 35. Those 20 players can’t move until the returner has the ball or until three seconds after the ball hits the ground.
A touchback is marked at the receiving team’s 35.
The XFL’s format encourages returns but eliminates high-speed collisions between players running full tilt at each other. It’s safer, and makes the kickoff an actual play.
If the NFL cared about player safety, it would adopt the XFL’s kickoff format immediately.
But the NFL doesn’t. Nor do the players, not really. They never take a stand for it.
The Steelers’ primary concern at Acrisure Stadium vs. Buffalo is that nobody gets hurt, especially Watt or Minkah Fitzpatrick. If one of them goes down, the season’s over. The Steelers could survive most others being injured, even Kenny Pickett.
Fitzpatrick is the Steelers’ best player. He’s the top safety in football. He’s made first-team All-Pro in three of his four seasons with the team. He’s missed only two games during his Pittsburgh tenure. He carries the middle of the defense.
No offense to Dan Moore Jr., but it might be better if he got hurt. Nothing serious. A sprained ankle, maybe. Just enough to get Broderick Jones in at left tackle.