Opinion: As coaches choose safety over game reps, it's time for NFL to cut preseason slate

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USA TODAYPHILADELPHIA — It’s time to overhaul the NFL’s preseason setup. Seriously.If it wasn’t already evident, Week 3 of the 2019 preseason made it painstakingly clear that it’s time for a change. It’s obvious that most of the league’s coaches and players feel that way already. Now, it’s time for the owners and league officials to admit that there’s really no longer any need for four weeks of preseason football.Two weeks are enough, then, let’s just get to the regular season. And I’m not saying the league needs to expand to an 18-game regular season slate. Just about every player in the NFL will tell you that a 16-game regular season is taxing enough on the body.But four games of preseason action? That’s just two weeks of sloppy, miscue- and penalty-plagued football too many.When …♦ A bulk the league’s starting players either didn’t dress at all, or merely log a dozen snaps or fewer.♦ Field conditions at Winnipeg’s IG Field were so poor that 33 Green Bay Packers were held out of the game against the Raiders, and the playing field was reduced to 80 yards and kickoffs were eliminated.♦ The Raiders left 24 players home rather than take them to the same game.♦ Former players, who understand that preseason play can make or break a career, are saying it.♦ Pro scouts even admit that they’re gaining very little from attending preseason matchups…. you know, it’s time.ROUGH NIGHT IN WINNIPEG: Packers have two players hurt in game on shortened fieldCAM NEWTON: Panthers QB leaves game with foot injury4th & MONDAY: Our NFL newsletter always brings the blitzYes, there are a handful of bubble players that manage to punctuate offseason and training camp resumes with a couple of nice plays in Weeks 3 and 4 of the preseason. And maybe a few backups gain some meaningful experience by playing in these games so they don’t go into the regular season — a time when they must be ready at a minute’s notice — completely green.(I’m sure Baltimore Ravens backup Trace McSorley, who threw two touchdown passes against the Eagles, or Josh McCown, who just days after coming out of retirement to become Philly’s No. 2 quarterback, certainly were glad to get the action.)But players don’t get game checks for preseason play. And given the way we’ve seen seasons ended and careers threatened by injuries suffered in the preseason, it’s clear that the risks certainly outweigh the rewards.That’s why after years of using the third preseason game as a dress rehearsal for the regular-season opener, many head coaches broke from that tradition and many of their starters out of the game.Safety > game reps. Even in the case of the Eagles and Ravens, who have young quarterbacks that certainly are working to perfect their crafts.But both Eagles coach Doug Pederson and Baltimore counterpart John Harbaugh deemed Monday and Tuesday’s joint practice action sufficient work for this week for quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Lamar Jackson.“Listen, we’ve had a lot of good work with him in training camp,” Pederson explained when asked about holding Wentz out of a third straight preseason game, “and he had a lot of good work against Baltimore this week in practice. I’m real comfortable with him in his development and where he is.”Harbaugh and Pederson rank among the growing number of coaches who have begun using joint practices as an alternative to preseason action.The proof is there. NFL teams don’t need preseason play to prepare for the regular season. Last season, Rams coach Sean McVay showed it was possible to sit his starters the entire preseason and still start fast during the regular season and play at a high level throughout the year.Now, more teams have begun to follow suit.Under the joint-practice setup, the scheduled home team typically hosts the opponent of their upcoming exhibition matchup for a couple days of practice so their starters get meaningful reps against unfamiliar players and schemes. The backups get the exhibition game action.These practices offer a safer and more controlled environment than a preseason game. Quarterbacks wear their non-contact jerseys and remain untouched. Running backs and pass-catchers get wrapped up, but not taken to the ground. But the benefits are similar. Players still get to run a high number of plays and significant portions of their playbooks during these 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 segments of practice. And coaches can stage the scenarios. They want to work on their third-and-long packages, they announce such downs and distances again and again.And, under these joint practice arrangements, the starters actually wind up getting significantly more snaps in two days of joint practices than they would in a bite-sized portion of action in a preseason game.So, what is the value of a preseason game now?“There’s always benefit getting these (young) guys actual film and live action out of starters,” Eagles safety Rodney McLeod said. “But I’d like to see more joint practices. You could maybe go to three preseason games and two weeks of joint practices. I don’t know exactly. We’ll see what the future holds. But (joint practices) work well for both teams.”Yes, some players still are auditioning for jobs. And as McLeod noted, the opportunity for those players to put work on film for other teams to evaluate for future signings is a plus.But on most teams, the starters already have cemented their positions midway through training camp — if not sooner — and after two weeks of preseason action, coaches already have a good idea of who belongs on their 53-man rosters. And if the starters don’t play in the preseason at all because joint practices take the place of games, those backups would receive ample opportunity to showcase their skills.The main group benefitting from four weeks of preseason action are the NFL’s owners, who charge fans to attend preseason games just like they do regular-season games. Given the high number of starters in street clothes, sloppy play and the sight of stadiums with only a fraction of the seats filled, it’s really embarrassing that anyone has to pay to attend these games.Can anyone really deny that preseason games represent a little more than a money grab for the owners? Teams would be better off donating masses of tickets to every Boys & Girls Club within driving distance of the stadium so kids who never get to experience a pro football game in person could at least check that off of their bucket list.The length of the preseason will no doubt rank among the topics of discussion as the NFL’s owners and the players union negotiates toward a new collective bargaining agreement, which would take affect in 2021. It’s no secret the owners want an 18-game regular season. They’ll have a hard time getting the players to go along with such a proposal because of the safety concerns.But for the benefit of all parties, cutting the preseason down to two games is just a no-brainer.Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.AutoplayShow ThumbnailsShow CaptionsLast SlideNext SlideIf you love talking football, we have the perfect spot for you. Join our Facebook Group, The Ruling Off the Field, to engage in friendly debate and conversation with fellow football fans and our NFL insiders.

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