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WP: Preseason Helps Some, Hurts Others


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Preseason Helps Some, Hurts Others

Fewer Games, Fewer Injuries?

By Leonard Shapiro


With another summer of significant injuries in the NFL, Rich McKay, co-chairman of the NFL's Competition Committee, said yesterday he anticipates that after the 2003 season the league likely will take another hard look at the issue of whether there are too many preseason games.

"It's an issue that's been raised numerous times in the past," said McKay, general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "The last time we discussed it was four years ago, and a survey I sent around to the coaches was firmly in favor of four [preseason games]. Will it be talked about again? It will depend on whether the coaches and the owners want us to talk about it. But these issues do get revisited."

After serious injuries to top quarterbacks Michael Vick of the Atlanta Falcons and Chad Pennington of the New York Jets within the last 10 days, the discussion -- much of it fueled by the media -- is heating up. That includes speculation on whether an 18-game regular season, with two preseason games, would be viable.

Vick, who had a breakout second season in 2002, broke his right leg Aug. 16 as he tried to scramble out of the pocket against the Baltimore Ravens. He'll likely miss at least the first four games of the season, including a Sept. 14 game against the Washington Redskins. Pennington also was moving out of the pocket Saturday night against the New York Giants when he was hit from behind and cushioned his fall with his left hand, with more serious consequences.

Pennington, who took the Jets from a 1-4 start to an AFC East title last season, is expected to be out at least 12 weeks with a dislocation fracture of his left wrist. He'll be replaced by 39-year-old Vinny Testaverde, and the Jets are insisting their season is hardly lost, just as they probably did 32 years ago when Joe Namath broke his right wrist in the final preseason game against the Baltimore Colts and was out for the 1971 season. Under Al Woodall, they went 4-10.

"Good players get hurt in the preseason all the time," said Jets Coach Herman Edwards. "When they become your stars, obviously it becomes headlines."

There have been other serious injuries this summer, just as there are every summer. The Redskins' new starting defensive tackle, Brandon Noble, is out for the year with torn knee ligaments. San Francisco 49ers tight end Eric Johnson broke his collarbone Saturday against the New Orleans Saints and is expected to be out 10-12 weeks. Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver James Thrash, a former Redskin, is out indefinitely after suffering head and neck injuries Friday against the New England Patriots, and teammate rookie defensive end Jamaal Green broke his leg in the same game and is out for the season.

Redskins Coach Steve Spurrier, mindful that Vick and Pennington play for the first two teams on his schedule, joked yesterday that the Giants, Washington's Week 3 opponent, "need to hold [quarterback Kerry Collins] out this week. . . . We never like to see guys get hurt. Joe Paterno said one time something I firmly believe: 'You want to beat the other guy with all their best players and you want the other team to play well.' When you win like that it's rewarding and satisfying."

Until 1978, when the current wild-card system was put into effect, the NFL played six games in the preseason and 14 in the regular season. Then it was changed to four exhibitions and the 16-game schedule. In recent years, there has been talk among owners about expanding to 18 regular season games. But according to Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, it's been only talk.

"Those guys can get hurt in the first league game, in practice, any time at all," he said. "If you want to put the quarterback in a red shirt and treat them like dolls, that's fine. But in a game, they're going to get rushed, and they're going to get hit. If we're going to play the game, we need to do it this way. If you're going to develop players, you have to be in camp for a certain period of time.

"[steelers Coach] Bill Cowher thinks you need four preseason games; anything less you won't give some of your rookies and free agents a chance to make your team. He always says you have to protect people as much as we can, but you also have to have everyone ready for that first league game that counts. If you don't, you'll play some of those early games without the normal intensity, and that's when people really get hurt."

Veteran players almost always say they wish the preseason games could be cut back, especially with football now an almost year-round business for them. Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the NFL Players Association, said it would be "useful to look at this issue.

"It's somewhat complicated," he said. "It's probably not necessary for the preseason to be structured the way it was 20 and 30 years ago. We've always been concerned with having them practice less. But then how do you also measure the economic impact?"

Said Redskins defensive end Bruce Smith: "This is just a violent sport . . . the most violent sport in the world. Unfortunately you're going to have these injuries. You just try to minimize them."

The NFL estimates the preseason generates about $350 million of its total $4.8 billion annual gross revenues. The bulk of that figure comes from ticket sales and local broadcasting deals. Rooney said his preseason ticket and local TV revenue is especially important in paying down an $80 million debt on the team's three-year-old Heinz Stadium.

Every NFL team now includes mandatory purchase of two preseason home games with its regular season ticket package, meaning millions in preseason revenue per game. They also sell those games to local television, with teams earning millions more for that package. In Pittsburgh, the Steelers get $1.2 million per game, and the price jumps to about $5 million for a network game as part of the league's broadcast package.

Still, expanding to an 18-game regular season would probably involve playing regular season games in August, traditionally the time of year when TV viewing is at its lowest.

"Those are dates that are not attractive to advertisers and usually have low ratings," said Neal Pilson, a sports television consultant and former president of CBS Sports. "If the networks had 18 regular season games, that would be more valuable to them. . . . I'm sure the league will look at it as it searches for more revenue streams in its next broadcast contract."

"We're willing to look at any model that makes sense," said the NFLPA's Allen, whose players get about 67 percent of the league's gross revenues. "We understand there's a cost attached to it. If you shift two games to the regular season, you're talking about a different equation."

McKay said even if an 18-game schedule were adopted, teams would almost certainly have live scrimmages against other opponents, and probably practice for three days at a time with another team, also with live hitting. "It won't necessarily mean that injuries will go down," he said. "And with 18, there's a huge injury factor, too."

Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi said he would be opposed to an 18-game regular season.

"To me, everybody gets amnesia on this subject," he said. "All of a sudden it's a new revelation. . . . If we had two preseason games, they'd play the same amount they're playing now. You can't ask them to stop hitting in January and start hitting in September. You have to have contact. When coaches plan out how many plays a guy is going to get in the preseason, it's like a pitch count in baseball. It won't change. People hit each other at a high rate of speed. This isn't golf."

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Personally, I would like to see an 18 game regular season, because if players are going to get hurt anyway, the games may as well count. I believe the old AFL or XFL or whatever the hell it was called, didn't play any exhibition games and came out throwing as soon as they got off the bus.

Yeah, I know I am bias, because I'm not a player or owner and it's not my money or any skin off my back. But I can't see the sense of getting players racked up in games which don't count. The owners and coaches were moaning about the very same issues way back when they played 6 and 7 exhibition games. Just my :2cents: worth. :)

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One thing that I noticed did not get much press re. the Pennington injury. The fact that he was playing behind a rookie center. If you are going to play your franchise QB in a meaningless game, you damn sure should give him the best possible protection. :doh:

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Here is the tradeoff though, you can't say that the 3 preseason games so far haven't helped more than it has hurt. We lost Noble for the season which sucks, but look at Ramsey, the O-line's and just the overall offense's progression from game 1 - game 3. I mean I would much rather have the games to work on right now, then have to worry about weeks 1 -3 during the regular season.

Like I said in another thread, maybe there should be an option for teams to opt out of preseason games. Like I see no reason a team like the Bucs should need more than 1-2 games to shake the rust off, however with the Skins(a young team that NEEDS THE REPS) preseason seems like it would help a lot more than hurt.

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Well... it's more for the young players. I think that two games should be enough. Do people really think that college players can "knock off the rust" but in the pro's they can't? That's lucid.

I say that the first two preseason games are ALL rookies or young guys trying to make the team... then you have two more preseason games and start the season like normal.

I'd like to cut out the preseaon, but if you did, so many young players would never get a shot.

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Injuries are a part of the game.

If the injuries happened to be just redskin players this would be backpage news for the media just like how the media conviently ignores the key injuries to the Y2K skins and try to paint the failure as bad personnel moves.

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