Someone asked Carson Wentz the other day how much he expected to play in the Eagles’ preseason opener. The question itself is a late-summer tradition, and even in this era of sports and sports media, when any roster move or lineup decision by any coach or manager on any team in any sport is treated as a major news event, rarely is so much made of something so inconsequential. We’re talking about the NFL preseason here. The games’ outcomes do not matter. The statistics in those games do not matter, unless you’re playing preseason fantasy football, in which case the only thing that matters is that you be completely honest with a mental-health professional about your addiction.
Wentz answered with the same diplomacy that he answers most questions, deferring to Doug Pederson. “Coach, he’s done this before,” Wentz said. “He’s done this as a coach. He’s done this as a player. He knows what guys need. In conversations with me and some of the other guys, I feel good about the plan he’s going to have here. … Preseason’s helpful, but I don’t think it’s a necessity.”
Pederson himself might as well have delivered that last line. By all appearances, it has been one of his guiding principles since becoming the team’s head coach in 2016. In his first preseason game, he pulled starting quarterback Sam Bradford — yes, Sam Bradford was the Eagles’ starting quarterback then — after just three plays. On Thursday night, before the Eagles’ 27-10 loss to the Tennessee Titans, Pederson didn’t bother with any such pretenses. Wentz never took the field for pregame warm-ups. Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz, DeSean Jackson — all of them were in street clothes. In fact, just two players who could reasonably be called starters on the offense, Jordan Howard and Dallas Goedert, suited up.
“You look around at other teams and what other teams have done in the preseason,” Pederson said. “I take all that information in. I look at how our team practices during the week. Our starters, they get most of the reps in practice. … There's a fine line between how much rest and how much push.”
For Pederson, the scales tip toward rest and safety — a philosophy that the broken left wrist Nate Sudfeld suffered only reaffirmed — and he deserves credit for refusing to pretend otherwise. There’s no need for anyone, least of all the coaches who are counting on keeping their best players upright and free from any devastating injuries, to make more of the preseason than what it is. They’re seeing what they need to see in practice, in the film room, in the weight room.
The NFL already oversells enough events to appeal to its hardest of hard-core fans: the draft combine workouts, the draft itself, league-sanctioned television coverage of training-camp practices — even though the league forbids any footage of practice to be televised. Back when NFL players didn’t maintain their peak physical condition during the offseason, back when they needed training camp to … train, a team might play as many as six preseason games. But those days are gone. Players now might have their own personal strength-and-conditioning coaches, or they might travel to Europe or Qatar or another faraway place to undergo a once-obscure treatment such as, say, cryotherapy, and the biggest risk isn’t that they won’t show up to camp in shape. It’s that their frostbitten toes might fall off.
So yes, cutting the preseason from four games to two makes sense, but the NFL’s 32 owners aren’t about to give up any fast-flowing revenue stream. If anything, they want to open the spigot some more. Earlier this summer, during negotiations for the league’s next collective bargaining agreement, the owners proposed expanding the regular season to 18 games. The players association rejected the idea for safety and salary concerns and objections, but it seems inevitable that the two sides will find a way to bridge the gap. You cut a preseason game or two here, you add a postseason game or two there, and it all evens out.
“Preseason games getting cut down, I’m OK with,” Eagles long-snapper Rick Lovato said. “I’d be OK with them adding an extra playoff game, another wild-card game or something like that. But adding another two games to make it 18, I just don’t know how that would affect the standings for playoff football. Does that just keep it at eight teams per side? That would be interesting.”