KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Just about everyone who follows or is connected with the NFL can agree on one thing. They couldn’t be happier that the preseason ends with Thursday’s final round of exhibition games.
But no one seems to agree on a solution to the annual disenchantment with the four-game preseason schedule.
Most teams don’t play their starters in these games, especially the final one, or they don’t play them for more than a series or two because they don’t want to risk injuries.
Season-ticket holders, meanwhile, still have to pay full price for games featuring players at the bottom of the 75-man rosters who will be without jobs in less than 48 hours. And many of those fans don’t bother showing up at all for the games.
The Chiefs, who entertain Green Bay at 7 p.m. Thursday at Arrowhead Stadium, have played in front of tens of thousands of empty seats in all three of their preseason games, including their home debut against San Francisco and in their road games at New Orleans and Pittsburgh, two of the NFL’s most fervent fan bases.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, admitting the fans were not getting a bang for their buck with these glorified scrimmages, advocated reducing the preseason to two games and increasing the regular season from 16 to 18 games when negotiating the new collective bargaining agreement in 2011. But he ran into resistance from the players, who said 16 games took enough toll on their bodies.
With player safety a growing issue and a huge concussion lawsuit working its way through the courts, the NFL has backed off the 18-2 idea, and any change to the schedule, even a 17-game regular-season, three-preseason game slate, would need to be collectively bargained with the players.
Neither the players nor the owners want to give up the revenues from 20 games, no matter what the mix, because they share the pie that determines the salary cap.
So, if they were commissioner for a day, what would the Chiefs do about the preseason?
“There are two sides to the coin,” said Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt. “For a team like the Chiefs who have gone through a coaching change, having four games is very valuable for the players and the coaches. There are certainly veteran teams that will say they don’t need four preseason games.
“Long term, the move to having more regular-season games and fewer preseason games makes sense from a holistic standpoint, but I can’t predict when that will happen.”
The debate rages whenever league owners and executives gather.
“It is something we have made a league-wide issue, and have prioritized it,” said Chiefs president Mark Donovan. “We’re in the middle of the CBA, and one of our biggest turning points as a league is we have to solve a lot of problems in that CBA, and this is part of that discussion.
“It would be frustrating if we weren’t trying to address it, if we weren’t having meetings, if the league wasn’t talking about it on a consistent basis. This is one of those issues that is a league and players’ association issue. It’s going to take a lot of discussion, a lot of cooperation, but the most important point is it is being addressed … it is being discussed. There isn’t a meeting that goes by without it being discussed.”
As in every preseason, several key players around the league have been injured and some are out for the season. Buffalo quarterbacks Kevin Kolb (concussion) and E.J. Manuel (knee) were injured in preseason games, and the Bills will start an undrafted rookie, Jeff Tuel, against New England in the regular-season opener.
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith last week was drilled in the helmet by Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu, who drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Imagine the outcry if Smith had suffered a concussion from that play.
“It’s not my decision…,” Smith said of being at risk in four meaningless games. “It’s a physical game, guys are going to get hurt … guys get hurt at practice, and we don’t tackle for the most part. It’s the nature of the game.”
Chiefs Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson remembers when teams played six preseason games — and a seventh if they played in the College All-Star Game or Hall of Fame Game — and there were just 12 and later 14 regular-season games.
“Three or four preseason games are no big deal,” Dawson said. “It’s just the way the system is working. If you’re the head coach, do you want to take any chances on your key players getting hurt? It doesn’t count in the standings.… You’re trying to figure out who’s going to be on your football team, and they pretty much know the answer to that. They probably have known it for a few weeks anyway.
“But they want to find out how they’ll do in game conditions.”
With the offseason programs and minicamps, the NFL is such a year-round job, it would seem teams would not need four preseason games anymore. But coaches can’t have enough dress rehearsals for the regular season.
“I’ve got one side of it,’’ coach Andy Reid said. “Owners and commissioner’s views are different. The coach is in it to coach his guys and get as many reps out of the young guys so they can try to make sure they make the right decisions. I get both sides … but I’m a coach. I like the four games. But I understand the other side, too.”
Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt said he uses the preseason games to experiment, much like a baseball player uses spring training to tweak his swing or work on a new pitch, though he probably can get that accomplished in two preseason games.
“I like it because I can afford to try to be risky in the (preseason) games,” Colquitt said. “I can try some stuff that I want to do during the season because that’s the only time we have game-like, rush coming out, different colors hitting other colors.”
But Colquitt understands the undercurrent of discontent with four preseason games.
“It’s one of those things where we see a lot of flak about the Pro Bowl, but they’re not addressing four preseason games,” Colquitt said. “Everybody wonders what’s going on, but I think we have a system that’s not broke, it works well. The NFLPA is doing a lot of research right now, and they’ll come to terms and figure out what the right thing is for everybody.”