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Game Doesn't Count, But the Injuries Do

By Michael Wilbon
Monday, August 14, 2006

CINCINNATI Normally, you don't want to find yourself in agreement with Jeremy Shockey. The Giants' tight end, while a valuable player, is also something of a caveman. But on the subject of preseason football, Shockey's recent comment that two-a-day practices and four exhibition games are a "debacle" and "dangerous" is the only logical position to take.

Clinton Portis certainly isn't going to argue, not after suffering what still could be a significant shoulder injury making a tackle Sunday night.

The Redskins' season could be substantially changed by the Portis injury, and history tells us other teams are going to have similar August calamities, many of which could be avoided.

Of course, the NFL isn't listening, not when the league's telecast of a preseason game can attract 7 million viewers, which is what happened a week ago. There's far too much money to be made from staging preseason football, so the games will continue. And they will also continue to be unnecessarily dangerous, as we saw Sunday night in the game between the Bengals and Redskins.

Only four minutes in, Portis suffered a partial dislocation of his left shoulder. The starters on offense took 13 snaps. But that was long enough for Portis to get crunched while making a tackle after Mark Brunell was intercepted. So Portis got hurt making a typically earnest effort on a worthless play he shouldn't even have been involved in during a meaningless game. Who knows if Portis will be able to start the season? We're talking about an injured shoulder on a running back. Suppose it's chronic and makes it more difficult than usual to hold on to the football or block a linebacker?

Afterward, his shoulder in a sling, Portis said, "Even if it's not serious . . . to be nicked up Week 1 [of preseason]. How bright are the defensive coordinators?" Portis was referring to game strategy. He expects the defensive coordinators to call more blitzes to make him block linebackers who will steadily beat on that left shoulder.

Portis wasn't the only casualty for the Redskins, nor the most serious.

Nine minutes after he was injured -- the game was still in the first quarter, mind you -- linebacker Chris Clemons suffered a sprained MCL.

Doctors immobilized the left knee with a thigh-to-ankle foam cast before Clemons was helped from the field. Before the end of the half rookie running back Kerry Carter was carted from the field so doctors could get a good look at his right leg -- and what they found was a torn MCL and a torn ACL, which means Good Night and Good Luck. Season over.

That's Terrell Davis territory, sadly.

Okay, it's not news that football players get hurt. And the Portis injury wasn't nearly as gruesome or as maddening as, say, the blast to the knee of Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer in that playoff game against the Steelers in January that still has Palmer on the sideline.

But it's worth getting hurt in the playoffs because it's the playoffs.

It's unspeakably unnecessary to get hurt in the preseason because it's nothing.

That's why Portis wore that "Are you kidding me?" look on his face after the game.

For decades, even through the 70's, when most pro football players made little more than teachers and truck drivers, two-a-day practices and preseason games -- it used to be six instead of four -- were necessary. Players sold cars in the offseason, insurance, did whatever. Sonny Jurgensen was such a great basketball player did some barnstorming after the NFL season ended.

You know what players do now in the offseason? They get ready for the season. There are minicamps and five weeks of OTAs (organized team activities). Team practice facilities are open year-round. Redskins linebacker Lemar Marshall, for example was there virtually every day.

Nobody's out of shape. Nobody comes to camp to sweat off 25 pounds anymore.

They're ready to go in June, much less the middle of August.

Shockey isn't alone in feeling the preseason is unnecessarily dangerous.

In fact, his teammate, the always rational and eloquent Tiki Barber, said the same thing this week. Asked if he was looking forward to the Giants' preseason game against the Ravens, Barber said: "Not at all. It's a chance to get used to hitting again, and a chance to get a look at a lot of young guys. But other than that it serves no purpose other than to get you hurt."

Well, it serves the players no purpose, certainly not the veterans. The purpose it serves is making money. The masses want pro football, and they want it more than baseball (sorry, seamheads), more than basketball, more than NASCAR, more than "American Idol." And the beast must be fed. Hey, there are Fantasy Football rosters to be finalized soon, elimination pools in every workplace in America. And most of all, preseason games are gravy for the owners because players don't get paid until the regular season. Owners get ticket money, the concessions, the $25 parking -- and mostly its theirs to keep.

Pro football is big, glamorous business even in August, which means players are put at risk in August, when they don't need to be. NBC's star-studded telecast Sunday night -- Madden, Michaels, Costas, Collinsworth, Sharpe, Bettis -- was more high-voltage than a Super Bowl telecast 15 years ago.

I'm not going to make the case that it was excessive because the public craves it. Tiger Woods attracted approximately 4 million viewers last Sunday en route to winning the Buick Open. The Raiders-Eagles Hall of Fame game that night attracted more than 7 million.

Here in Cincinnati Sunday night, the Bengals sold out their first preseason game in 5-year-old Paul Brown Stadium. A franchise record of more than 64,000 watched a mistake-filled, error-plagued effort. I won't blame the players; the only important thing the veterans can do is leave the building un-injured. The first half was notable only for how good each team's defensive starters played. Beyond that, who knows? Joe Gibbs said his team did nothing positive and there was no evidence to contradict him.

But the story here concerning the Redskins wasn't the way the team played or how Jason Campbell looked; it was the Portis injury. When I asked him what he thought about the number of preseason games and chances to be hurt, Portis looked into a bank of cameras and said, "Let's get rid of some of these games -- four games is ridiculous -- then you go out and have a 16-game season and the playoffs are after that."

It was after his first carry of the night, an eight-yard run, when Portis said he started thinking, "Get me out of the game." He wasn't faulting his coach for playing him. He was simply stating what an increasing number of veteran players are acknowledging -- that preseason football from a players' point of view is stupid and very risky, unnecessarily so. And it's time somebody did something about it.

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