It’s time for the NFL to change its pointless, painful preseason

Credit: Eric Risberg

Credit: Eric Risberg

Raiders coach Jon Gruden hasn’t flat-out said it, but the message has been received loud and clear: he hates the preseason.

Clearly, his stance is that the four-game exhibition season is an unnecessary burden that carries far more risk than reward. You can’t draw any other conclusion from how he has coached his team this August.

I asked Gruden after the Raiders’ soul-crushingly boring and uninformative third preseason game Friday if he thought four exhibitions are too many. He declined to comment, but did get in a jab: “I think that was an eight-hour game, I am tired.”

I’m picking up what you’re laying down, coach.

And I’m happy to take up the charge: It’s time for the NFL to shorten the preseason or kill it off altogether.

Because what’s happening right now isn’t working for anyone.

Yes, some teams still find some use for the four-game preseason schedule — the 49ers played their starting offense for 45 snaps on Saturday — but the value in roster whittling and regular-season preparation is losing out to the risk of injury and the NFL’s new one-fell-swoop cut date.

We simply don’t need four games to find out who will make a 53-man roster. Yes, there are roster battles, but contrary to popular opinion, there aren’t that many of those — maybe four or five spots are up for grabs.

If an NFL coach needs four preseason games to determine who should make his team, then he needs to be cut. I know coaches complain about the lack of practice time these days, but they get offseason workouts, nearly three weeks of training camp, and more than a month of preseason practices to make what is usually a handful of roster decisions. That’s plenty of time, plenty of reps, to make a determination.

And while, yes, it’s always good to get reps against adversarial competition in preparation for the regular season, I’d bet that every (competent) coach in the NFL would say that it’s better to have a healthy roster heading into Week 1.

Gruden clearly gets it — the Raiders have displayed the most extreme example of preseason reticence I can recall, as the new/old coach has kept his top players on the sideline for the vast majority of the exhibition schedule. He has punted this preseason, and I can’t blame him for doing it.

Not only did the Raiders have a preseason game against their Week 1 opponent — a terrible league-office oversight that naturally resulted in a secretive stalemate might be the most unsightly “football game” I’ve ever seen — they also have a veteran-filled team and a fairly straightforward depth chart.

Because of that, through three preseason games, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr only taken 13 snaps, wide receiver Amari Cooper has been on the field for 12 snaps (two more than his wideout partner Jordy Nelson), and the presumed starting offensive line has taken only 20 snaps together.

Oh, and Marshawn Lynch has been on the field for a grand total of four plays.

The starting offensive line might — maybe, perhaps — get some run in the Raiders’ fourth and final preseason game on Thursday, don’t expect the rest of the first-string offense to see the field against the Seahawks.

But no one in Alameda is concerned about the team’s readiness for the start of the regular season. They don’t correlate preseason snaps to regular-season readiness.

“Obviously, it’s different because I don’t play as much as before, but we get so many things done in practice. It’s very tough, it’s game-like, and the kind of things I need to see and feel,” Carr said. “If we practice at speed the way that we do, I feel that you can go out there in preseason and play a couple plays and be ready for the season.”

The Raiders aren’t alone in their preseason game apathy. The Raiders’ opponent for their third preseason game, the Packers, benched Aaron Rodgers and their entire starting offense. (I think Rodgers will manage this regular season.) The Bears rested their starters on both sides of the ball for their third preseason game, too.

So much for the “dress rehearsal.”

Times have changed — there aren’t multiple cut dates, open tryouts, or drafts with 500 picks anymore. Today, every time someone stretches at practice it’s registered on a Bio-tracker in the players’ pads and recorded in 8K by cameras on four cranes, three drones, and a few helmets. This is an era of optimization, but anyone who has watched even a half of an NFL preseason knows that there’s nothing optimal about them.

Even Roger Goodell, a man who is so obtuse I wonder if he’s doing performance art, sees how ridiculous this four-game preseason schedule is: “The NFL should do things to the highest possible standards,” Goodell told a crowd of New York Giants season ticket holders. “Preseason games are not that.”

If only he had the power to do something about it…

We, on the other hand, are not obtuse — we know exactly why the NFL still has four preseason games: cash.

If you buy NFL season tickets, you have to buy two preseason tickets as well, and they, of course, are full price. Yes, people are paying hundreds of dollars for the right to watch an interminable “game” that features a ton of errors and a bevy of too-young-to-matter prospects playing alongside guys who have already been cut behind the scenes, soon-to-be insurance salesmen, and a tremendous selection of washed-up players.

Even the San Francisco Giants think that’s a rip-off.

So while I think we can do without preseason games — college teams seem to do just fine without them, and if teams want to go against a different team, they can hold more joint practices — I’m also willing to compromise. Let’s go to two preseason games: one home, one away.

That seems fair and easy, no?

Alas, it probably won’t happen any time soon. Shrinking the preseason would require NFL owners to sacrifice money.

I try not to expect the impossible, even when it makes sense.