Hart: NFL preseason may never be the same again


The coronavirus has greatly altered the world around us all and the way we do almost all things.

Many of us may never look at a once-custom handshake, high-five or a simple to trip to the local watering hole the same way again.

As it relates to professional sports, teams and leagues are jumping through precautionary hoops to return to play after months leading the quarantine life. And to be clear, for the here and now that’s exactly what they should be doing.

Certainly some of the changes will be temporary.

Once Covid-19 is relegated to its proper place in the pandemic history books – despite what it feels like right now it WILL actually eventually become a blip of history to look back on at some point, right? – NBA and NHL teams will be freed from the luxury bubble life in Disney and Canada, respectively.

The Red Sox will go back to a time where players actually hang out in the clubhouse, not their make-shift lockers in luxury suites. Although, this is one return to past realities that players may want to push back against.

Zoom calls will someday once again be left for big business meetings and communication born out of the necessity of geography, not the main form of interaction for students, families and nearly every co-worker on the planet, even if the participants are quite capable of close interpersonal contact.

And for the NFL, opening of training camp won’t require days and weeks of negotiations between the league and the players regarding everything from the number times guys will be tested for the coronavirus to the number of times they’ll strap ‘em up for preseason action.

Though it has not been officially announced publicly, the NFL will not play any preseason games this summer. The first time players put on pads and helmets for game action will be for the 2020 regular season opener, which for the Patriots will be Sept. 13 against the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium.

NFLPA leadership told players on a conference call a few minutes ago there will be zero preseason games this year, sources say. Not a surprise given the league offered that but now all but official, according to the union.

— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) July 21, 2020

The need for preseason games – and certainly the need of a full month of them – has been debated for years.

For the most part, teams have played four preseason “games” a summer since the NFL went to a 16-game regular season schedule in 1978. Before that, teams like the ol’ AFL Patriots would suit up five or even six times in July, August and September.

In recent years, though, with desires to expand the regular season schedule beyond 16 games – a negotiated possibility likely to come as early as the 2021 season – there has been much discussion among owners, executives, media and even players about cutting back preseason action. Swapping out two preseason games for a pair of regular season contests has been a popular plan with some – even though the balance between the financial windfall that would create for owners and the body-beating toll it would take on veteran players may not be equitable.

While number-crunching owners and action-thirsty fans may love the idea of cutting exhibition affairs – the NFL has bristled at that term for insignificant August “games” for years – coaches and talent evaluators aren’t quite so willing to flippantly remove chances for young, developing players to prove their mettle.

That was a message that Bill Belichick made quite clear when asked about the value of last summer’s fourth preseason game against the Giants and the idea of playing less games to lead up to the opener.

“I'm not going to get into all that. I think you can figure it out,” Belichick said, his answer dripping with telling tone. “You're a smart guy. The more games you play, the more opportunities you have. Look at the Giants last night, you want to go ahead and cut out this game then go ahead and cut it out. It gave [rookie New York QB Kyle> Lauletta a chance to play half the game. It gave [Alex> Tanney a chance to play half the game and gave [Daniel> Jones a chance to play. If you want to get rid of the game then go ahead and get rid of the game, and then don't play those guys. Do whatever you want on that.”

The NFL and NFLPA didn’t do what they wanted this summer by cutting out preseason games, they did what they felt that needed to do in the midst of a pandemic that, rightfully, has many on both sides concerned that even getting to and certainly getting through a regular season schedule is going to be a major challenge.

So, training camps will look markedly different this summer. There will be long ramp-up periods of players working on conditioning and non-padded practice action. Then there will be just a couple weeks of limited practice in pads leading up to real regular season game action.

There will not be four preseason games for veterans to knock off the rust for a few snaps or rookies to try and make a name for themselves.

And the reality is that now that the door has been kicked open by the coronavirus to play less preseason games, in all likelihood we will never see a summer of four preseason games again.

Maybe that’s good news for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and his 32 billionaire bosses. Maybe that’s even good news for season ticket holders who no longer have to figure out who to give their tickets to for a pair of preseason games each August.

But, it’s clearly not what Belichick and other talent evaluators and player development people in the NFL are looking for.

We won’t have to worry about the “meaningless” fourth preseason game in the future because thanks to the finality of the coronavirus the “meaningless” fourth preseason game is now likely a thing of the past.

For better or worse, it is what it is.

Of course now maybe we’ll be left to worry about the “meaningless” second preseason game.