Fewer preseason games following an offseason without on-field workouts creates more challenges for new coaches, players who changed teams and rookies.
The NFL is cutting the exhibition schedule in half and pushing back the start of the preseason to allow teams more time to train because the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of organized team activities and minicamps.
An official announcement on the exact length of preseason still hasn’t been made. Players are strongly considering asking for even fewer exhibition games.
“Be ready for 1 or 0 preseason games. Won’t be 2,” Denver Broncos kicker Brandon McManus wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.
Teams were forced to conduct their entire offseason programs via videoconference so the league’s five new head coaches haven’t had an opportunity to see how players will adapt to their system on the field.
“You used to be able to have 60 days to get the job done, and everybody in our league will probably have more like 30 days, so I’m really focusing on maximizing the time and the meeting time and the most important things we need to get done when we get back together,” new Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said in late May about having to do a virtual offseason. “Having the unknown out there causes more work on the preparation side.”
At least McCarthy and new Washington Redskins coach Ron Rivera have been in charge before. Joe Judge (New York Giants), Kevin Stefanksi (Cleveland) and Matt Rhule (Carolina) are first-time head coaches in the NFL.
“I haven’t seen (the players) run and I don’t know what condition they’re in,” Rhule said. “But that is why you build a roster full of guys that you can trust so that you know they are out there working hard on their own and staying in shape so that when we do come together, hopefully all of the teaching that we’ve done can come together with the physical part.”
The Panthers are among several teams with new quarterbacks who didn’t get a chance to work with new teammates in organized practice sessions. Some, like Tampa’s Tom Brady, held their own throwing sessions even after the union’s medical director advised players not to practice in groups.
Late-round draft picks and rookie free agents will be affected most by fewer preseason games because they see most of the action in those games, especially the final one. Higher picks will have a tough time making an immediate contribution because they’ll have fewer reps to show off their skills.
“I think 32 teams are probably sitting here going, ‘Wow, I wish we had OTAs, I wish we had a chance to evaluate some of our draft picks and some of our free agents, new to the team,’” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said last month. “I don’t want to call it a setback, but at the same time we do have some young players that played for us last year that are going to have to take a big step forward. ... And these guys have to understand that there’s a little bit of a sense of urgency once we get into training camp. Things are going to move fast and we, as coaches, need to evaluate these players. I have to put them in position to be successful to show what they can do and that’s everything that we are in the process of doing right now leading up to camp.”
Many starters don’t play a lot of snaps in the preseason anymore. That’s one reason why the length of the exhibition schedule was shortened to three games when the regular season goes to 17 games in 2021 as part of the new collective bargaining agreement.
It’ll be easier for coaches to map out their plans with fewer preseason games in a normal offseason environment when they’ll have actual practices on the field instead of everything held virtually.
For 2020, everything is unique.
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