Regardless of team allegiance, no one wants to see an NFL player taken off the field on a stretcher.
It happened four times in the NFL’s Week 2 preseason games, to New England Patriots cornerback Isaiah Bolden, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback John Wolford and Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland and defensive tackle Moro Ojomo. Last week, Seattle Seahawks Cade Johnson also had to leave the field on a stretcher after suffering head and neck injuries on a tackle while returning a kickoff.
Bolden’s fourth-quarter collision on Saturday night was particularly jarring, as it left him lying motionless on the ground as medical personnel tended to him, with his teammates kneeling nearby in prayer. The Patriots and Green Bay Packers mutually agreed to call off the rest of the game.
These scenes understandably renew questions about the prudence of preseason contests.
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NFL officials intensify protections of quarterbacks and ramp up concussion protocol on an annual basis. Yet the league also makes contradictory player safety moves, like beefing up the “Thursday Night Football” schedule, which players loathe because of the short turnaround and reduced time to recover from injuries. So does the league care about player safety, or no?
Preseason games per team were reduced in 2021 from four games to three (the two teams in the Hall of Fame Game play a fourth preseason contest). Most prominent NFL stars already skip these games as teams look to protect their biggest investments. With increasing frequency, teams are turning to joint practices to prepare for the regular season, because they offer a controlled environment against an uncommon opponent for work and evaluation. Twenty-seven teams were scheduled for joint practices this summer, and 13 were expected to practice against two clubs.
So why not eliminate preseason games and just increase the number of joint practices for each team? Sounds simple, right?
That idea is easy for us outsiders to support. But for those who actually work, coach or play in the NFL, it’s far more complicated.
NFL owners initially opposed the idea of shortening the preseason, but eventually approved the change during the last collective bargaining agreement negotiations. For them, it’s about money. Shocker. Players may not receive game checks in the preseason, but these contests do still generate a fair amount of revenue — between $3.1 million and $6.2 million per team.
But if you take away the financial aspect, is there any value to preseason games?
NFL coaches, general managers, scouts, unproven players and their agents would largely say yes.
The evaluation process of players begins the moment they arrive for the offseason program. It continues throughout training camp and extends through the preseason. Every rep, every drill and every play — made or botched — matters, GMs and coaches say.
Joint practices are nice because they allow starters to face counterparts from opposing teams, and they let coaches control the number of individual or team reps and different scenarios their charges face. These sessions operate under the agreement that foes will hit, but with restraint — and no hitting the quarterbacks at all. So these practices generally cut down on the same kind of risks that come with games.
But GMs and coaches agree that joint practices don’t offer the full picture. It’s impossible to fully evaluate talent across the board — special teams, offense and defense — relying on joint practices alone, they say.
Coaches have a good idea of what they have in veterans, so joint practices afford those established players the opportunity to knock off the rust and hone their skills in competitive, yet controlled, settings. But there’s no speed like game speed, multiple league coaches and talent evaluators said this weekend when asked via text and phone conversation about the value of preseason games (they were granted anonymity so they could talk openly about their assessment of players and NFL policies). And game-speed action gives them the most accurate evaluation of how their young players stack up and how they fit into the puzzle. Also, in joint practices, there’s no real way to see how well a running back breaks tackles, or how well a linebacker wraps up, because there is no real tackling. It’s just not entirely the same.
“Games are hard to simulate,” one NFC special teams coordinator said, “so, you love the preseason for the evals and substitutions part of it.”
Meanwhile, an AFC talent evaluator said the performance-under-pressure aspect offered by preseason competition can’t be underestimated.
“The other thing to factor in is that we need to see who can handle the crowd,” he added.
Will Blackmon, a longtime NFL defensive back who’s now an analyst for FS1 and NFL Network, understands position battles well after playing 10 seasons for the Packers, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants and Washington Commanders. He also understands the juggling act of preparing for a regular season while avoiding unnecessary injury risks during the preseason.
But Blackmon said games, more often than not, are truth-tellers for young players.
“Some guys practice well and then don’t show up in games,” he said. “And at the same time, you have guys that scare you (with their struggles) in practice but shine when the light is on.”
The younger players who manage to further elevate their games under those lights often wind up solidifying roster spots over other bubble players who fail to flash. Every year, players enter the final week of preseason competition and win or lose jobs with in-game heroics or blunders.
But what about potential injury? Necessary evil, or unnecessary risk?
They know it’s unusual to see five players in two weeks leave the field on a stretcher, but the NFL insiders interviewed for this story aren’t so sure the preseason has suddenly become more dangerous. They noted it’s important for medical teams to operate out of an abundance of caution. None of the five players who left the field on a stretcher suffered serious injuries, and the three who were subsequently transported to a hospital (Johnson, Wolford and Bolden) all were released within 24 hours. The Eagles said Friday that Cleveland was diagnosed with a concussion and neck sprain, and Ojomo with a concussion.
Also: Injuries are going to happen in the NFL. It’s tackle football, a game players describe as a repeated car crash. It sounds callous, but it’s the nature of the game. NFL officials can implement stricter protocols and rules, but there’s no way to make tackle football 100 percent injury-free.
Two Eagles players leave preseason game vs. Browns on stretcher, 6 exit with injuries
Some coaches and former players say they wonder whether lighter workloads in the form of the shortened practices and contact limitations negotiated into the collective bargaining agreement have left players less game-conditioned. But the validity of that theory is impossible to know.
Others raised the possibility that an increase in year-round football, conditioning programs and seven-on-seven camps at the youth, high school and college levels have led to players entering the NFL with more overworked bodies than previous generations. That theory is also impossible to prove or disprove.
It’s a delicate balance. NFL coaches need to adequately prepare their players for the regular season, and general managers and assistants need as accurate a picture as possible on the roster pieces they have assembled. And in such a highly competitive game often decided by inches or seconds, young players crave and need as many opportunities as possible to differentiate themselves. Their bosses also welcome every opportunity to confirm their decisions are right.
So, the preseason isn’t going anywhere. These contests may offer little in terms of star power, but they are still important for player assessment, even if the risk of injury is the cost.
(Photo of Bill Belichick and Matt LaFleur: John Fisher / Getty Images)