After NFL offenses struggled, coaches are rethinking the preseason

The NFL is now three years into its revised schedule, which includes one fewer preseason game and an additional week of the regular season (with more teams also making an expanded postseason). It’s fair to assume that after a Week 1 that was one of the worst played and least competitive in recent history – marked by some serious injuries and inept offensive performances – not the entire base is thrilled.

Commissioner Roger Goodell announced the schedule changes “A monumental moment” in the league’s history, but debates rage and theories abound about the importance of exhibition football and how necessary it is for key players. The NFL and NFLPA agreed to the changes at a time when consumer demand and interest in exhibition football was at its lowest point – as always, follow the money – and prominent coaches were calling for fewer fake games and a more holistic approach to the preseason. And now — as more teams than ever before have opted to use top players for all or most of preseason — some prominent coaches are once again calling for change and rethinking their own approach to the summer after watching their ugly game film on Monday morning .

“If I had to do it all over again now, on reflection I would say: Yes, I would have played one or two drives as a starter in the preseason,” said Nick Sirianni, coach of the reigning NFC champion Eagles, after a flawless victory in the first week in New England, in which his vaunted offense faltered. The Eagles looked a little better in Thursday’s error-filled win over the Minnesota Vikings, but disagreements between quarterback Jalen Hurts and receiver AJ Brown on the sideline and the box score – which showed 48 rushing attempts and just 23 passes – were telling Pointing out that the offensive was still in crisis, the cobwebs were in the cobwebs. Sirianni admitted he took notes on the sidelines during Philadelphia’s opening game about whether Hurts might play against the MVP candidate more often in the 2024 preseason.

Sirianni and Hurts had plenty of company.

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Every rule change and focus in this league is implemented to improve scoring and downfield passing. Yet only six quarterbacks — Tua Tagovailoa, Kirk Cousins, Matthew Stafford, Mac Jones, Derek Carr and Jared Goff — threw for just 250 yards in Week 1, while 15 teams had starting quarterbacks who threw for 200 or fewer. The collective QB rating was a morbid 83.6, the second-worst opening weekend mark since 2010 and continuing a clear trend in this three-year sample. One could point to the number of inexperienced starters, but veterans like Josh Allen, Hurts, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Daniel Jones, Dak Prescott, Ryan Tannehill, Russell Wilson and Geno Smith were among the lukewarm players at the position.

A shocking 14 teams scored 17 points or fewer in regulation time and there was sloppy football – even by Week 1 standards. Turnovers skyrocketed, sacks skyrocketed, and yards per play and points per drive dropped dramatically. (You have to go back to the relative dark ages of 2010 to find fewer points per ride in an opening week). At least half of the games appeared to have been decided by halftime, and despite some poor results, seven games were still decided by 14 points or more.

By my estimate, only one-eighth of Week 1 was compelling for the better part of four quarters. (My list includes Lions-Chiefs, Jaguars-Colts, Dolphins-Chargers and Eagles-Patriots; I suppose we could argue Bills-Jets, but the QB play was terrible and Aaron Rodgers’ injury-related four snaps at the end of the season topped everything else .)

Ravens coach John Harbaugh, a Super Bowl winner who advocated for shortening the preseason in 2016 as that movement gained momentum, could have spoken on behalf of several coaches when he detailed the areas in which his offense was making progress had to. (Baltimore totaled 265 net yards against the rebuilding Texans while racking up 106 penalty yards). Harbaugh’s laundry list included tasks as rudimentary as “just being on the same page where we were lined up, timing movements, sometimes getting out of the crowd as quickly as you wanted.” [Also] Route running, blocking, schemes, which linebacker we were working toward.”

The Ravens-Texans game was one of two games in Week 1 that did not feature a single passing touchdown, while there was only one passing touchdown in four games. Half of Week 1’s games featured two or fewer passing points. The opening week included 37 passing touchdowns and, gulp, 25 picks. I asked longtime NFL personnel manager and current analyst Mike Lombardi if any of this surprised him.

“Not at all,” he said, immediately pointing to the light summer workload. “Nobody practices.”

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As in 2016, Harbaugh is once again among the loudest voices for change, although his concerns go far beyond just the quality of play. Once again, his opening weekend was marred by injuries. The Andy Reid student followed his mentor’s preseason mantra of relying on veterans until he lost top running back JK Dobbins to a torn ACL during a preseason game in 2021. Since then, Harbaugh has adopted the Sean McVay approach of essentially sitting out everyone of significance, yet the Ravens again lost Dobbins for the year in Week 1, and star safety Marcus Williams probably lost most of it. The Ravens will travel to Cincinnati without their starting left tackle and center after Sunday’s costly win over Houston.

“It’s like a hamster wheel,” Harbaugh said of varying his game-time principles in the preseason. “You’re in the hamster wheel and you’re not getting anywhere. And that’s exactly how the conversation goes about injuries in the NFL. I think there’s definitely progress, but if you look at whether you play in preseason or not, how many reps you do in practice or not… We’re all in the process of getting our guys up to speed now. Is there really a ramp long enough to get the guys up properly? I would say no.

“So I think the people who are doing the studies on this know that too. So ultimately what they need to do is they need to change the whole thing – the entire preseason process – and update it. … They know there’s not enough time to get the guys ready for the game in that short amount of time to prepare.”

Harbaugh expressed confidence that the league and union can make significant changes to better guide teams and players into the regular season. Some of the sloppiness is probably inevitable — injuries, a lack of offensive timing and precision — but in a copycat league, other coaches are undoubtedly thinking about the same things as Sirianni and Harbaugh.

It’s not an exaggeration to assume that some coaches will use their starters a little more often next summer, and the push for more controlled collective practices will only grow louder. More practices and fewer fake games could become the norm to strike an elusive balance between providing comprehensive individual and collective work and mitigating the physical catastrophes that this violent collision sport brings. At the moment, few seem to be satisfied with the state of preparation for the season. After NFL offenses struggled, coaches are rethinking the preseason

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