Pain of preseason

Players: 4 games is too much risk

Ravens & Nfl


When Clinton Portis voiced his pain and displeasure after hurting his shoulder in a preseason game this month, the Washington Redskins running back simply echoed the NFL's long-standing rite of summer.

Too many preseason games. Too much training camp.

"I don't know why myself or any other player of my caliber should be playing in the preseason," Portis complained to reporters after a partial shoulder dislocation.

It is a lament as old as training camp itself. The NFL's four-game preseason format, adopted in 1978, offers a comfort zone to coaches and executives trying to assemble the best 53-man roster they can.

But that format remains a danger zone for the players, who loathe games that don't count and injuries that do.

The debate is revived each summer when preseason injuries alter the NFL landscape, sometimes with devastating effect. Three years ago, the Atlanta Falcons lost quarterback Michael Vick to a broken leg in a preseason game against the Ravens. The loss not only undermined the Falcons' season, but it also eventually cost coach Dan Reeves his job.

In his 1995 preseason opener, the Cincinnati Bengals' Ki-Jana Carter, the top pick in the draft, tore up a knee and was never the same running back.

Balancing the need to prepare a team for the regular season against the desire to keep players healthy is not a job for the weak-minded. "You hate the length of the preseason," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, "but you've got to have four [games].

"Believe me, if I could get to the opener and not have to risk my starters or front-line guys getting hurt, I would love to do it. But you can't prepare that way. You just can't play the game afraid."

If anything, devastating injuries have been on the low side this summer. Perhaps the biggest injury was in Cleveland, where the Browns gave free-agent center LeCharles Bentley a $12 million signing bonus, then lost him for the year in his first practice.

But it will take more than a spate of injuries to convince owners to change the format of four preseason and 16 regular-season games. Despite speculation about switching to two and 18 - an idea that has been floated among league executives for at least the past 10 years - it isn't likely to happen anytime soon.

"I'm one that thinks that will not happen, certainly not in the short term," said Steve Solomon of SJS Sports and a former ABC sports executive. "Clearly there are a lot of people in and around the league - players in particular - who think two games is sufficient. But I think this current schedule is set and not going to change."

To change would require approval by three-fourths of the owners (24 of 32) and an agreement with the NFL Players Association. According to Ravens president Dick Cass, the financial numbers work but the logic doesn't.

"If you went to two and 18, everybody would maybe make a little more money because of the enhanced television contract," Cass said. "But I certainly don't favor that. I think the current system works."

His argument is persuasive. In the two-and-18 format, players would be exposed to more risk because they'd replace two preseason games, where they have limited snaps, with two regular-season games where they play the entire game.

That also would necessitate more hitting in practice - a rarity now - and less chance to evaluate young players under game conditions.

"You're going to get about five quarters out of your starters [in four preseason games]," Billick said. "You compress that to two games, now I've got no time to look at my young guys."

It's those extra games, Billick added, that enabled an undrafted free agent like safety Will Demps to make the Ravens in 2002.

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome is a member of the league's competition committee, which recommends rules changes. He said there have been no proposals to shorten the preseason.

Newsome also appears to prefer status quo.

"The year we had the Philadelphia preseason game canceled [2001], we could've used that game to evaluate because we ended up only having three games," he said. "But it's more than just evaluating. Do you think it's important for [new Ravens quarterback] Steve [McNair] to have four games to work this year?"

Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the NFLPA, said a number of factors would be considered before any change in the schedule is made, including revenue generated from preseason games.

"The most important thing is to evaluate talent and figure who will make the team and who will be in the starting lineup," Allen said. "Obviously players who already know they've made the starting lineup are less interested in playing in the preseason."

Veteran Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson is among those players who would endorse a two-and-18 schedule.

"Yes, I'd love to play two preseason games and 18 regular games, but it is what it is and you have to go play," he said recently.

A history of the NFL preseason

1950 to 1960

NFL teams generally played five to six preseason games, though a few played seven, including the 1950 Baltimore Colts.

1961 to 1977

The NFL went from a 12-game regular-season schedule to a 14-game slate, and the preseason consisted mostly of five games and sometimes six. The Pittsburgh Steelers, however, played seven in 1975 and 1976.

1978 to present

The league went to a 16-game regular season, cutting the preseason to four games, but teams playing in the early August Hall of Fame Game or "American Bowls" in foreign countries usually would have a five-game schedule.

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