Injuries aside, fans suffer most

Ravens & Nfl

August 23, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

The National Football League preseason games are one of the biggest rip-offs in professional sports, and sometimes the biggest losers are the players and owners. But no one loses out more than the fans.

They actually have to watch these games.

Apparently, no one in the NFL hierarchy is watching, because they would find them terribly boring, too. At halftime of most of these games, fans are usually turning them off and preparing for the next day of work. The only time there is real interest is when a star player like Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis gets hurt and has to miss playing time.

That's why the NFL needs to make the change in its format and play 18 regular-season games and only two in the preseason. Fans are bored. A lot of veterans don't care. Star players get hurt, causing hometown fans to lose hope for the season.

Isn't that enough?

"I tried to put that [two preseason games] on the agenda 40 years ago," said Art Modell, the former longtime owner of the Cleveland Browns and a Ravens minority owner. "But the coaches said that wasn't enough time to judge players. I tried to delay the cut-down days.

"Colleges don't have preseason games, so why should we?" said Modell, laughing. "I find them boring myself. Somebody had to wake me up at the last Ravens game."

According to Modell, the league sticks with a 20-game format because all the budgets and league revenues are based on that volume of games. That's fine and acceptable. The extra preseason games may have been good back in the 1950s and 1960s when salaries were still modest and players often had another job besides playing football. They needed the extended training camps and preseason games to get players into good physical shape, and install offensive and defensive schemes.

But that's no longer the case.

Huge salaries allow players to work out year round. They hire personal trainers. Most teams have several offseason minicamps in which they implement or expand on schemes. Rosters, for the most part, are usually set going into training camp, which is used more now for developing team chemistry than anything else.

So, what is there to evaluate except to find a couple of special teams players? This is a league that needs only two to three days a week to plan for the coming opponent. Forget the excuses.

The NFL needs to rev up the engine and turn those two final preseason games into meaningful regular-season contests. The owners would still make money. The major television networks would probably make more money. Fans would be happy. And if players are going to get hurt, well, at least it's in a game that means something.

"My concern is that we're trying to shove it down people's throats when they don't want to buy it," Modell said. "But injuries should not be a factor because they can happen anytime, even in practice."

True, but fans in Washington don't want to hear that right now. They want a healthy Portis in the lineup on opening day, not watching from the sideline wearing a baseball cap. Imagine what a season-ending injury to quarterback Steve McNair on Friday night against the Minnesota Vikings would do to the psyche of this town and the Ravens? It would deflate like a popped balloon. We can accept it better in a regular-season game than a meaningless preseason game.

The NFL is fortunate this season because there haven't been many big-name players hurt in the preseason, but that could change quickly within the next couple of days as coaches play their starters more in the third preseason game as opposed to basically resting them in the final game.

You think Ravens coach Brian Billick won't be sweating it out against the Vikings when he puts often-injured veterans like Ray Lewis and Samari Rolle on the field? Imagine if Peyton Manning or Tom Brady goes down, or how about Edgerrin James or Randy Moss? Maybe then, only then, would the league pay attention.

And maybe then they would hear the voices of a lot of veterans who don't want to play in preseason games. A lot of teams will play hard in front of the home fans and take it easy on the road.

Most stadiums start emptying out at halftime, soon after the restroom and beer breaks. Those remaining pore over the roster wondering who is Joe Palooka wearing No. 83, or where in the world some obscure university is located. Usually with about four minutes remaining in a game, there are barely enough fans left to get a good campfire going.

The next day, no one cares about the score, only what the starters did during their quarter or half of playing time.

It's time for a change, but the NFL won't make that move. After all, it is the world's biggest money-making sports machine. But we don't really need four games to get us into the cheering mood, or to whet our appetites.

Two preseason games is quite enough, thank you.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.