In recent years, the NFL has openly derided the quality of its preseason games. Three years ago, the league offered to eliminate half of them if the players’ union would agree to a lengthier regular season. That failed. But more recently, a possible reduction in preseason games has been linked to a proposed expansion of the NFL playoff field.
Yet even with the expanded playoffs likely on the way for the 2015 season, the sport’s four-game preseason probably is here to stay, as some owners of NFL teams have put aside the notion of cutting the number of preseason games.
“I’m not sure that we’ll see it being shortened,” New York Giants co-owner John Mara said.
The renewed support for a four-game preseason marks a departure from how NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and others within the league were talking about the preseason in recent years. Goodell said regularly that the quality of preseason games wasn’t up to NFL standards, that the fans didn’t want to see so many preseason games and that the NFL was looking at reducing the number.
As part of the negotiations with the union that led to the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, the league proposed lengthening the regular season from 16 to 18 games per team and reducing the preseason from four to two games per club. (The two teams that participate in the annual Hall of Fame Game play five preseason games.) But the NFL Players Association was adamantly opposed to a longer regular season and the owners backed off the proposal.
Now the owners seem intent upon expanding the playoff field from 12 to 14 teams as a revenue-generating mechanism. That measure appears likely to take effect in the 2015 season and would have seven teams in each conference reaching the postseason instead of the current six. Only one team in each conference would receive a first-round playoff bye rather than the current two, and there would be six opening-round postseason games league-wide instead of the current four.
The initial thought by some observers was that the playoff expansion perhaps would be accompanied by a reduction of the preseason. The revenues gained from additional postseason games would offset those lost due to a preseason reduction, that line of thinking went.
But Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy said the two concepts are “not necessarily” linked.
“The proposal to expand the postseason is two additional games,” Murphy said in a telephone interview. “That’s a pretty minimal impact…. I anticipate we will expand the playoffs. When will the vote take place? My guess is probably after the  season. That way, you give people a little more time to think about it.”
The addition of two postseason games could generate a significant revenue boost for the sport, primarily through the adjustments the league could negotiate to its national television contracts. When the league was proposing a lengthened regular season and a reduced preseason, the idea was that the revenue gains from additional regular season games would more than offset the revenues lost from fewer preseason games. In this case, if the owners can add two playoff games without cutting any preseason games, there would be primarily only revenue gains.
The potential added revenues would be shared among teams, benefiting not only those franchises that participate in the additional playoff games but non-participating teams as well. The revenues also would flow to the players under the sport’s salary cap system. The union potentially could ask the owners for something in return for agreeing to additional postseason games, perhaps a reduction in preseason games. The owners’ response in similar circumstances in the past has been that the union should be satisfied with the players receiving their prescribed share of the additional revenues being generated.
But the quality of product for two playoff games would certainly far surpass that of the preseason’s contests, which brings another element into the discussion – the fans. Should the NFL expect its patrons to pay full price for a lesser product than what they get in the regular season?
“I think you might see more and more teams go to variable [ticket] pricing to deal with the preseason issue,” Mara said, referring to the practice of charging less for games with decreased demand and more for games with heightened interest.
Murphy expressed similar sentiments, saying: “I think a number of teams, somewhere around 10, have moved to the variable pricing. I think a lot of us think that’s part of the solution with the preseason. If people aren’t paying full price for it, they’re less likely to object.”
The variable ticket pricing being used by some teams could negate the argument that fans don’t want to pay full prices for preseason games that don’t matter in the standings, some owners say.
While the preseason may hold little value for fans, teams find the game environments of the four-game schedule provide a very important testing ground when it comes to roster construction.
“A number of people, including myself, believe you need four games to evaluate your players,” Mara said.
Murphy shared that sentiment, saying he has “legitimate concerns” about teams having enough opportunities to evaluate players to make roster decisions for the season if the preseason is reduced.
“From a football standpoint, with the CBA and the limits on hitting and padded practices, the games are really important,” said Murphy, a former safety for the Washington Redskins. “There’s nothing like fully padded games to evaluate your players.”
The time is particularly valuable when evaluating positions where backups see little regular season action unless a starter goes down with an injury.
“There are certain positions that are really hard to evaluate in anything but the games, linemen and quarterbacks,” Murphy said. “If it [playing four preseason games] helps people to make decisions about their roster—those are hard decisions.”
For example, Denver Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler isn’t going to replace Peyton Manning under center in the regular season, barring an injury. But the Broncos need to know what kind of player Osweiler can become over time. Is he a suitable replacement when Manning ultimately leaves Denver or does the front office need to make an alternative plan? Likewise, teams are loathe to play backup offensive linemen while pass rushers are flying at the starting quarterback. The team needs time for the second unit to get game action. Therein lies the value of the extra two preseason games. Half of the preseason serves to get the starters up to speed; half serves as a time to see what talent the team has in reserve for future seasons.
Some teams use joint practices with other clubs in training camp to aid in the player-evaluation process, but Murphy said that’s not an adequate substitute for the preseason games.
“We haven’t done that,” Murphy said. “From what I understand, they’re better than just practicing against your own team but still not as good as games [for player evaluation purposes].”
Some players dislike the injury risks associated with preseason games. But coaches monitor how much their front-line players are on the field during the preseason. Starting players generally play a few series in the first two preseason games, then make an extended appearance in the third preseason game as the primary tune-up for the regular season before usually sitting out the fourth preseason game entirely.
It’s possible that the chances of the NFL preseason being reduced went by the wayside when the push for an 18-game regular season was abandoned.
“That idea [of cutting the preseason] really came up during the CBA talks when we were talking about 18 and two,” Murphy said. “We thought maybe that would be a way to bridge the gap with the players. But now, there really doesn’t seem to be any momentum for adding regular season games.”
Circumstances could change. But at this point, the owners’ interest in reducing the preseason appears to be on the decline.
“You never know,” Mara said in a phone interview. “Someone could put it up for a vote. Maybe you could see more scrimmages to deal with the player-evaluation part of it. But I just don’t know that I see us reducing the preseason in the near future.”