The National Football League (NFL) preseason is the time for players to get back into shape and get the feel of live play for the first time in half a year, while the games have no impact on the regular season. During training camp and the offseason, the players work with the team to get ready for the season, but there is nothing like playing a live game. That is why it is difficult to evaluate how ready players are for the season without playing a live game. This is where the preseason games come in, as players can truly play and see if they are ready to go. Preseason is also a time for players that are not guaranteed a starting job, to play for a roster spot. So, it appears as if the preseason games should be played by everyone. The only issue with playing in games is that there is an increased risk of injuries, and injuries in the NFL can be devastating to a team. Recently, there have been a few injuries that have caused teams to rethink their strategy when it comes to having their starters play minutes during preseason games.
Injuries are inevitable for an NFL team. Football is a physical sport that involves players being put into positions that likely will get them injured. Running back Christian Mccaffrey was injured for most of last year because of an ankle injury. Since he is a running back, he gets tackled a lot, so he is likely going to get some lower extremity injury. So, it is not surprising that he got injured. The Carolina Panthers last season finished with five wins and 11 losses last year as they were missing the production of Mccaffery. Injuries to key players can ruin a team’s season as a lot of teams build their game plans around a star player.
So, teams want to avoid injuries, but they also want to make sure that they are winning games. To win games, the players need to be ready with real playing time. That is what the preseason games are for. But then you also want to avoid any injuries, so you do not want to play your starters in games that do not matter. This is where an issue arises. Do you play your starters in the preseason, and if you do for how long? According to NFL reporter Ian Rapoport, during the final preseason game of the season against the Washington Football Team, Baltimore Ravens running back J.K Dobbins suffered a torn ACL. Many fans were very upset with Ravens head coach John Harbaugh as they believed it was unnecessary to play him in the final game of the preseason. Their opponents, the Washington Football Team, decided to not play most of their starters due to the risk of injury. According to Washington Wire, the Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera decided that the roster was mostly set and they wanted to avoid any injuries before the start of the season. The Ravens are led by superstar quarterback Lamar Jackson, but no doubt the injury to Dobbins has ruined much of their plans for the season. Specifically, the running game from the Ravens is going to have to be changed. The Ravens run a very heavy run offense as Dobbins and Jackson are normally very dynamic running the ball, but with this injury the Ravens must change what they have been practicing for the weeks leading up to the start of the season. Obviously, the season is not completely ruined for the Ravens. The Ravens added a few wide receivers so their passing game may be more open. But the overall question is, why was Dobbins in the game in the first place?
The decision to have certain players play is ultimately up to the coach and sometimes there are valid reasons to play them in games and sometimes there isn’t a need to. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers did not play in a single preseason game. This decision is obvious considering he’s approaching his 16th year in the NFL and won the NFL Most Valuable Player award last year. Rodgers has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL for the past 10 years, which is why it is easy for a coach not to play him during the preseason.
Another easy decision comes from the Jacksonville Jaguars. The first overall pick by the Jaguars in the 2021 NFL draft was quarterback Trevor Lawrence from Clemson. Lawrence started off the preseason poorly and people were questioning how well he was transitioning into the NFL. Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer decided to play Lawrence in the final preseason game instead of resting him to avoid any injuries before the season. In the final game, Lawrence played extremely well as he had a nearly perfect completion percentage and two touchdowns. This game likely gave Lawrence a large amount of confidence going into the season and got him fully ready for the season. The decision to play Lawrence in the final preseason game is another obvious decision when it comes to preseason playing time.
So, we return to the decision about Dobbins. In the first two preseason games, Dobbins was not particularly effective, but he played very little, so it is difficult to completely conclude that he was not ready for the season. It seemed completely justifiable from a stats standpoint to play Dobbins in the last game as he did not have a rushing yard in his first game and only had eight yards in four carries in the second preseason game according to ESPN. However, Dobbins had a solid rookie season last year and the poor preseason play could have been nothing. Obviously, there is more happening during training camp and in the offseason that could define whether Dobbins was ready to play in the regular season that the fans cannot see, so fans cannot make the best conclusions about the situation. In the end, these decisions could always go both ways. The decision to play Lawrence in the final preseason game could have been terrible if he broke his leg or the decision to not play Rodgers could turn out to be poor if he throws four interceptions in the first game of the season. Preseason is obviously very important but sometimes it may just be better to play it safe. It may be better to lose a regular season game but let their player fully ramp up, than for their player to be injured during a game that has no value to the regular season and playoffs and force your team to change everything.