The NFL season is a long one, and something I’ve noticed from playing the sport for 16 years myself is that you’re only ever 100% healthy the first game of the season. For a team making it to the Super Bowl, an NFL season can consist of at least 23 games; four preseason, 16 regular season, and either three or four in the playoffs depending on if you make them, and how well you do. While every game during the regular season is important, the four-game preseason not only gives teams a chance to sharpen up their chemistry, but also gives draft picks, undrafted players, and veterans who are searching for a roster spot a chance to compete and show what their skills have to offer. For players in these situations, the preseason is vital. However, for players of superstar caliber, the question arises of how much playing time they should receive during the preseason, and whether or not they should even play at all.
Chemistry within a team is important. Players practice all training camp in order to develop good timing, and get better acclimated to the other players around them. Preseason games not only allow them to work on this chemistry in live situations, but they also allow teams to try out different personnel groups, in order to see their depth at different positions. Despite these benefits, the issue that stems from preseason games falls under the tenured players, who have already made their importance known with the coaches and the fans. These players have already built a fan base, and in some cases, they may have just signed a nice contract because of how important they are to a franchise.
When the Injury Bug Bites
This was the case for Julian Edelman, who just signed a two year contract extension for the New England Patriots. With the Patriots, Edelman has been a vital part in their offense over the past few years, so much so that he now is a part of two Super Bowl Championship teams with them. However, his 2017 season was ended prematurely after tearing his ACL in the third preseason game.
It’s hard to make a judgement on how much playing time superstars should get, especially with rosters always changing. When it comes to injury and fatigue, that’s all just part of the game, but it eventually comes a point where you have to be smart with what you have.
In Edelman’s situation, the third game of the preseason is considered to be the “dress rehearsal,” where the first team offense and players in heavy rotation get to finally get live game action together as a whole unit. I am a fan of this because somewhere in that four game stretch they have to touch the field to get used to the pace of the game. So, for a player like Edelman, an injury like his was inevitable because it was a game he was expected to play in. His injury was also unfortunate because it happened during a normal catch and run play, when he planted and tried to turn up the field. Not saying players like Edelman shouldn’t give these games 100%, but it makes it hard when your production is mostly appreciated during the regular season. Situations like this only make it harder for good players to want to suit up for the preseason.
Edelman’s injury was very unfortunate in the sense that it was noncontact. When it comes to injuries that result from contact, players of Edelman’s caliber or better, are usually established members on rosters already. In a preseason game, players of this level are more aware of other players’ safety and concerns, compared to other players who futures are based on them playing with reckless abandon in order to solidify their status as a player in the NFL.
For example, the New York Giants were playing the Cleveland Browns in their second game of the preseason. For the Browns, these past few seasons have been put towards rebuilding and trying to find players that would take their team to the next level. It’s safe to say most players on their roster have big expectations during the preseason and have a reason to go out to compete at a higher level than most. During the game, Giants big name receiver Odell Beckham Jr sustained an injury to his ankle. The injury resulted on a play where he went up in the air to make a catch, and the safety Briean Buddy-Calhoun went low to make the tackle. The question that arises in this situation is what could Buddy-Calhoun have done differently in that moment to avoid Beckham’s injury? If he were to hit OBJ up high, it could have resulted in a flag for an illegal hit, as well as a fine from the league, but if he doesn’t stop OBJ at that moment, OBJ is very much capable of making a huge play. That situation is a hard judgment to make and I think Buddy-Calhoun made the best decision he could at that given moment.
Around the League
The hit generated a lot of anger from the NFL world from present and former players, who regarded the tackle as a dirty play (even though it wasn’t flagged). An opinion that stood out to me was one from Emmanuel Acho who tweeted, “Not a dirty hit AT ALL. Just unnecessary especially in preseason.” While I agree with this tweet, it’s also hard tell a player who is battling for his salary to watch out for the safety of other players on opposing teams, especially when the play was legal.
It just so happened that an NFL fan favorite got hurt, and that’s where I think most anger comes from. If anything, most of these players should be upset with the Giants organization for having OBJ in a game against a team like the Browns in the second game of the preseason which resulted in an injury and made his status questionable for the season opener. What makes this hard though is once again the bind results from players needing the in game experience before games that actually matter.
Another reaction that stood out to me was one from former NFL linebacker Shawne Merriman who stated, “I’m a fan of the preseason joint practices, not preseason games.” I think this is something the NFL should really look into. The joint practices allow players to get in game experience against rivals and individuals who are more cautious and concerned about the safety of opposing players. Especially with the amount of focus being placed on player health and safety these past couple seasons.
Edelman and OBJ are both players that have sealed roster spots on their teams but their injuries highlight a big issue throughout the NFL. That big issue is that in the NFL, contracts are not guaranteed. With the NFL having one of the highest risk of injury in sports, taking care of their players should be a main goal. Even though moves have been made to help ensure the safety of players, more has to be done, and I think looking into the length of the season from preseason into the playoffs can be a start.