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Here's how cutting the preseason can lead to better pro football

Andrew Mason Avatar
July 3, 2020

Every so often in my deep dives into Broncos and NFL history, I will look back at the six-game preseasons of the mid 1970s and ask myself two questions:

“Why were that many games necessary?”

“How did anyone stomach that?”

(Heck, in 1976, the Broncos’ preseason had seven games, because they played in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. SEVEN! And you thought five games of preseason play last year was like jamming ice picks into your eyeballs for a month.)

I know why they existed, of course — because in those days, offseason work wasn’t organized, and training camps and preseasons were longer because players needed to work their way back into playing shape. That doesn’t make it any less absurd that the six-game preseason was more than 40 percent — 42.86, to be exact — of the length of the regular season.

Twenty years from now, we may wonder the same thing about the four-game preseason — and ask ourselves the same questions.

Canceling two weeks of the preseason — a move the NFL is expected to make official in the coming days — is, in the short term, part of the slow drip away from a conventional campaign. First, the Hall of Fame induction and Hall of Fame Game were scuttled for this year, with the ceremony for the class headlined by Steve Atwater scheduled to take place in August 2021. Then comes the preseason.

It would come as no surprise if one or both of the other preseason games are next. Brandon McManus alluded to that point on Wednesday.

Sure, Denver’s offense could use the work. With a new coordinator, a new scheme and the potential of six first-teamers being rookies or second-year players, the unit could probably use all the repetitions it can find.

But at the same time, first-team offenses typically see the equivalent of about one game of work over the course of an entire preseason.

Last year, Vic Fangio played an offense comprised mostly of just first teamers for 50 preseason snaps, with another 12 snaps in the Hall of Fame Game against the Atlanta Falcons featuring three young first-team offensive linemen: tackle Garett Bolles, guard Dalton Risner and center Connor McGovern. Only 28 of those snaps came with Joe Flacco at quarterback; the rest saw Lock or Kevin Hogan.

So, in the previous three summers, the Broncos’ No. 1 offense — or at least an offense comprised mostly of first-teamers — saw an average of 59 preseason snaps, with the number dropping from 68 in 2017 to 50 last year. (In the last three regular seasons, the Broncos averaged 63.4 offensive snaps per game.)

Thus, you need one game.

One game playing as you would a regular-season contest, using the No. 1 offense and defense with rotational reserves substituting into the game.

So what about the reserves about whom teams must learn?

For this year, there’s not much you can do — although the notion of expanded practice squads continues to linger.

But crisis often creates progress.

And this may be the point where we can finally talk about a true developmental league.

In most preseasons with four games, approximately 75 percent of most teams’ snaps involve backups and back-of-the-roster players fighting to make an impression. Of course, the NFL charges full price for this developmental exercise, which lines the pocketbooks but is not necessarily the most straightforward way of developing talent.

So instead of giving three games’ worth of work to players trying to make the roster and perpetually rankling the customers who grumble about paying the full regular-season price for exhibitions, what about giving eight games of work over the spring and summer to these players — and providing a more affordable product to give more fans a chance to experience in-person professional football?

Every NFL team would have their own developmental roster. It’s not as far-fetched as it might seem; teams can carry up to 90 players for more than half of the calendar year, and at any particular time, 40 to 60 percent of those players could benefit from actual football and game-time repetitions in a developmental league.

Expand the rosters to 100 to account for attrition, and play an eight-game developmental circuit.

These developmental teams that would run the schemes and utilize the nomenclature used by their parent NFL teams. This would allow players to learn the concepts and language that they would need to know if they stuck on their team’s regular-season roster.

Call it the American Football League or the All-America Football Conference, to honor two leagues that had members absorbed into the NFL.

Play the games in NFL stadiums — or smaller stadiums within a quick drive of NFL facilities.

Charge a reasonable amount: an average of $25 a ticket.

And play up the NFL brand and connections. Shoot, you could even still call the teams by their NFL names, if they’re based in the same city.

Imagine this: You have the developmental rosters of the Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs dueling on a pleasant Saturday night in May at Mile High. It’s Broncos-Chiefs in the springtime. You’ll attract a sizable crowd, including plenty of families drawn by the combination of cheaper ticket prices, deep affinity to the Broncos and the potential for fireworks — perhaps on and off the field. (You’ll have postgame fireworks shows after some games, because why not? This is part of the sizzle required in minor-league sports, since the steak itself isn’t the Grade-A meat of the regular season.)

It would allow more fans to experience Broncos football.

It would give late-blooming prospects time to gestate and grow and raw prospects an opportunity to refine their skills to be ready when needed.

It would provide undrafted rookies more actual game opportunities. If you’re a gamer and not a practice player, your chances are limited.

It would end the charade of preseason football, scaling it back to the one dress-rehearsal game that in terms of snaps is essentially what the first-teamers play, anyway.

It would give the NFL, its in-house network and its broadcast partners more inventory. If die-hard fans will watch Scouting Combine workouts, they’ll watch actual football played by prospects being developed by the teams in whom they have a deep-rooted emotional investment.

After a few years of this, the NFL might ask itself another question:

“Why did we ever do it another way?”

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