Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Continued Insanity of Playing Your Starters In August

NFL experts, are slow learners.

The "conventional wisdom" of live, real tackle, pre-season games, is that your starters "have to" play at least "some" of them.

Experts say this. Not me.

The experts also made Jamarcus Russell a $40 million codeine addict. The experts can't figure out how to make a ham sandwich of Matt Leinart after 4 years in the league. The experts decided to give Derrick Ward and Antonio Bryant big free agent deals, and then CUT them even before the NFL's final blade to 53.

Experts. Uh huh.

The experts are idiots.

I hear this phrase echoed by average fans who call my radio show. "But Czabe, you can't just sit your stars the entire pre-season, they HAVE TO play a little bit, in order to get ready for the regular season."

When anybody says you "have to" play your starters in August, I always respond with: "... or WHAT?"

This is where the stammering begins.

"Or what, you FORFEIT?"
"Or what, you'll get shut out?"
"Or what, you might lose ONE game?"

The answer is: nobody really KNOWS what. Since no teams have ever taken the arguably sane approach to playing only rookies and free agent hopefuls in pre-season, we don't have any data to analyze properly.

If perhaps a dozen teams took this approach for the next 5 years, we'd have a nice set of 60 Week 1 results over that stretch, to say: So called "cautious" pre-season teams are just 23-37 in Week 1.

Or maybe it would reveal that "Cautious" teams are an impressive 42-18 on opening week. Lending credence to a theory that fresh and rested veterans - especially skill players - perform significantly better out of the gate than their slightly beaten up peers on other teams.

Until we have some hard data to look at, the notion that pre-season play for veterans is essential is nothing more than an old coaches hunch. It's the "way things have always been done."

Certainly, it is quite possible, that some players - especially Pro Bowl caliber veterans - will not miss a beat when the first live game begins in September.

Certain other positions, like running back and wide receiver, which tend to be more instinctive, and individual - and not as scheme or team-mate oriented as defense and offensive line - would likely be less affected by a player going into the regular season "cold", so to speak.

But again, it is not like Star Player A is not going to PRACTICE extensively leading up to the first game of the year. Of course they are.

So I ask, "how bad could they play, just because they don't suit up in August games?"

That's the only question teams should ask. What is the more important value:

a. A player being slightly more "in sync" or "in game shape" for ONE game of the year (the first?).

b. A player NOT getting an injury that causes him to miss time (or an entire season) in a game that doesn't count in the standings.

If you look at it strictly from a cost/benefit analysis standpoint, I just don't see how or why coaches cling to the old notion of playing stars in pre-season.

This season alone, there have been a variety of important players injured.

The Rams #1 wideout Donnie Avery blows out his knee running under an August bomb from new QB Sam Bradford. Necessary? Really??

You can say Avery could have done the same thing in practice. Sure. Possible. But much less likely. You can say he needed the live reps to get in tune with Bradford. But at the cost of his whole season?

Would the Rams trade having Avery and Bradford slightly out of whack on timing for say the first two games of the year, for what happened? Of course they would.

But football coaches - and experts - cling to old notions. They don't make rational arguments.

Remember, football experts were once sure that WITHHOLDING water from players (at various levels of the game) in summer practice, was actually a GOOD thing! Toughened 'em up!


As of today, my team, the Redskins, have two important players hustling to get fully healthy for the season opener against the Cowboys: Donovan McNabb and Clinton Portis.

McNabb has thrown 34 passes, and had his ankle injured against the Ravens. He has not played since, and will not play again until September 12th. That will make over THREE full weeks since he has played a "live" game.

So you have to ask: "How could those 34 passes in mid-August, which put him direct jeopardy of injury, be of any meaningful significance when the season opens?"

Portis too, has a slightly injured ankle. This came after all of 9 pre-season rushes. He too, will span 22 days between games. Portis has carried the ball 2,176 times in his career.

And you are going to tell me those 9 August carries were worth it?

The counter argument, is that "you can get hurt doing anything in football."

This is true.

However, live fire, is live fire. Period. It greatly increases your chances of getting hurt, and the severity of the resulting injury.

I do not know how often military units perform "live fire" exercises, but I'd imagine it is very limited. And the environment, controlled.

Just because a soldier can get can get killed falling off a jeep going to the mess hall, doesn't mean that injuries are uniformly random and thus, their occurrence cannot be mitigated.

The near-miss decapitations of both Eli Manning and Jake Delhomme should serve as the final wake up call to coaches who still think August games are in any way "important" to players who have significant game experience already.

Delhomme and Manning have both played in Super Bowls, and played very well. Neither one should be playing August games of "capture the flag" with live ammunition, and a bunch of gung-ho recruits blasting off their M-16's like idiots.


  1. But Czabe, remember when Peyton Manning had knee surgery (2008 I think) and didn't play at all in the pre-season? The Colts lost their first few games of the season because of it. Manning wasn't as sharp coming in. The Colts (as you will soon see) don't lose like that...

  2. the answer to "You have to or what" is that they are still selling these tickets at near regular game rates and you should be able to get what you pay for. A fan who wants to see the starters play may say "I paid good money to see McNabb in a Redskins jersey."

    Also.. some fans may only have these pre-season games as their only chance to see live NFL games. They don't go there to see the 3rd and 4th string guys.