The words you’ve longed to hear for months can finally be said:
Those of you who have been having withdrawal symptoms since the Super Bowl in February can exhale. Training camps around the NFL will open this week (In Denver and Atlanta, practice is already under way) and the first preseason game is just eight days away as the Broncos and Falcons meet in the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio.
As is the case every year, there are changes galore throughout the league. New coaches. New coordinators. New players. New general managers and player personnel directors. All with the goal of dethroning the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIV.
But when it comes to training camp, the 32 NFL teams share a common bond besides winning. All want to develop a culture of success. All want to get their rosters sorted out and the depth charts established.
Most of all, the 32 teams want to avoid injuries.
The I-word. It’s the one thing that scares the bejeezus out of every coach and GM, not to mention the fans and the bettors. Lose a quarterback, a pass rusher, a receiver, a cornerback and suddenly, that cheery optimism swirls down the drain leading to pessimism and a season’s worth of lingering anger.
It’s an unfortunate fact of life and inherent to the game itself. It’s a physical, violent sport. People are going to get hurt. The question is, to what degree of severity?
That’s why depth is the objective for every team. Not just at quarterback. It’s a need at every position. The successful teams are the ones who manage to overcome injuries and the adversity that comes with it.
Things have changed over the decades when it comes to training camp. Time was NFL teams trained at small, rural colleges, looking to limit the distractions. They would practice twice, sometimes three times a day.
And when it came time to play the preseason games, there would be as many as six exhibitions. And that was with a 14-game regular season schedule. So imagine the fears of teams having a key player get hurt in that environment?
Today, teams practice once a day, spending more time in meetings and in the weight room and less on the field. Many hold training camp in elaborate practice facilities in their city, passing on the trip to a college campus. Players sleep in their own beds and report to work the same way they do in the regular season, commuting to the facility.
And while four preseason games have been the norm for a while now, there’s growing support for cutting the four exhibitions to two while increasing the regular season schedule from 16 to 18 games. Don’t be surprised if that comes to fruition in the next couple of years.
As for the games themselves, we’ve seen a pattern of routine evolve. The first week of preseason, the starters play a quarter, maybe a half at certain positions, then giving way to the rookies, free agents and others the coaches want to take a long look at. In Week Two, the starters play a half, sometimes early into the third quarter. In Week Three, the most competitive of the preseason games, the starters go three quarters, sometimes early into the fourth. Finally, in Week Four, the starters will play one series, if that, as teams don’t want to run the risk of, you guessed it, injuries.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat. That’s the NFL’s preseason formula.
Many bettors have figured out which coaches always try to win in the preseason (Hello, Baltimore’s John Harbaugh) and which coaches treat preseason for what it really is, a chance to look at personnel and keep everything in perspective (Dallas’ Jason Garrett).
The sharp bettors also know which teams have the kind of quality depth to pull out a win late in the fourth quarter, which rookies are going to get long, hard looks to show they can play in the NFL and how certain situations lends itself to one team having an edge over another, such as travel.
The storylines are aplenty as camps open. Will any of the three quarterbacks drafted in the first round (Kyler Murray, Daniel Jones and Dwayne Haskins) wind up starting this season? Does Jimmy Garoppolo come back from a severe knee injury and lead the 49ers? Ditto for Carson Wentz with the Eagles. Is there life after Gronk in New England?
Will the new coaches make a difference with the Jets, the Dolphins, the Packers, the Broncos, the Cardinals, the Buccaneers?
Were the Chiefs a one-hit wonder? Is the off-the-field drama over in Pittsburgh and Jacksonville? What will the Raiders’ final year in Oakland be like?
One thing we know for sure — life is never dull in the NFL. So let the fun begin. And for those who will ultimately not wear their team’s uniform in 2019, the Turk will be calling with the famous words — “Coach wants to see you … and bring your (playbook) tablet.”
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