The great debate: Should NFL teams play their starters in the preseason?
September 3, 2012
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Throughout the NFL preseason, teams are faced with the difficult decision regarding how much they should play their stars, if at all, in the meaningless warm-up games. The issue has spawned heated debate among analysts, fans and even Viking staffers whose strong opinions differ regarding this complex issue.
Austin says: YES! There’s no warm-up like the preseason.
A case can certainly be made that the risk of injury to starters and star players outweighs the benefits of letting the athletes take preseason snaps. After all, playing in any tackle football game is nearly as dangerous as getting between Spencer Drazovich (‘13) and a tender pulled-pork sandwich.
However, the fact remains that no amount of practice can replicate the value of in-game reps. It is one thing to carve up the scout team defense for hours at a time, but this comes easier to quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers than carving up the turkey on Thanksgiving dinner. When opposing defenses are bringing multiple blitz packages, it suddenly becomes a lot harder to hit even a big target like Coby Fleener with six feet of separation.
The same is true for players at other positions. Receivers must face defensive backs with different skills than the guys they face at practice every day. Running backs must get used to barreling full speed into a herd of linebackers who want nothing more than to take their heads off with one clean shot. Lineman get tired of going head-up against the same players every day too, and relish the chance to take on opposing players against whom they can play their hardest.
For defensive players, the preseason is of vital importance as well. Getting rhythm and timing down before the season starts is a huge component of a defense’s success. When a team practices against only one quarterback, it will not be prepared to take on the varied looks that Peyton Manning will throw its way. And although Buccaneers defensive backs might spend all of training camp shutting down Arrelious Benn, they will certainly not be ready to take on elite pass-catchers like Roddy White and Marques Colston.
The bottom line, of course, is that nothing prepares a football player for a season like game action. This explains why players who hold out through the preseason rarely produce at the same level they did previous years (see Johnson, Chris). While the cost can at times seem high, as it certainly must have for the Steelers as they watched rookie lineman David DeCastro get carted off the field with a knee injury, in the end the benefits outweigh those costs. Football is a game of injuries, and there is simply no way around that fact. Teams cannot afford to be concerned about losing valuable players in the preseason, or they will not be prepared for the physicality, intensity and speed of the game when the regular season starts.
The ideal solution is for starters to see limited game action in the preseason. There is no reason to trot out the starting 11 for all four quarters of an exhibition game, but having them play at least the first half, as many teams do, is an ideal compromise. Is there still a risk of losing key players? Absolutely. But as the Latin proverb states, “Fortes fortuna adiuvat,” (“Fortune favors the bold”). The best way to a championship is to have a team running on all cylinders when the games start to matter, and the only way to accomplish that goal is to allow players to take reps and get their rhythm down in the preseason.
Jonny says: NO! The risk of injury is too costly.
There comes a time in a man’s life when he must grab life by the horns, carpe diem or even perhaps perform actions worthy of a #yolo on Twitter. However, the NFL preseason is not that time.
While one may retort that getting first team reps in the preseason is imperative to regular season success, the problem comes with a risk-reward factor that requires more analysis than looking simply at the benefits. I’m not going to argue that rookies and players like Peyton Manning do not need time to gel with their new teams. However, the preseason is nowhere near as important as some make it out to be.
Let’s look at the 2011 Buffalo Bills. The Bills had an abysmal preseason campaign which was highlighted by their sole victory against Jacksonville in overtime. However, their preseason performance was no indicator of how they would play in the regular season. The Bills opened the season with a 4-1 record with upsets over the New England Patriots and much-hyped Philadelphia Eagles.
Sure the Bills’ case may be a tad irregular, but the real reason I say that teams shouldn’t play their starters in the preseason is the simple risk they run.
Bruce Wayne doesn’t go out and pound every petty corner-store thief. So why would someone send out the hero Gotham deserves to take on the Cleveland Browns? So far we’ve seen only two high-profile injuries this year in David DeCastro’s knee injury and Michael Vick’s rib-rattling hit, but plenty of other expensive investments are risked in the final week of the preseason.
Sure, you may disappoint a few fans by not starting your first team in the preseason, but people who have time to go to preseason NFL games have already shown poor judgement just by attending. Coaches should be worried about losing their best players and owners should be worried about losing their million dollar investments and franchise.
Do I mean to say that players shouldn’t play at all during the preseaon? Absolutely not. Players need a few reps to gel and the small amount of action they see should actually help them prevent future injury in the regular season. Nonetheless, starters should by no means be playing more than a quarter per game during the preseason or even appearing in their team’s last preseason game.
There is a very little reward to the daunting risk involved in playing these athletes in excess in the preseason. If Terrell Suggs can endure a season-ending injury while playing pick-up basketball, teams should be more than cautious before they play their players in the preseason.
What do you think teams should do with their star players in the preseason? Vote on our website.