Just before halftime of the Eagles’ first preseason game, Tennessee defensive tackle Isaiah Mack dumped quarterback Nate Sudfeld on his back, long enough after Sudfeld released a pass that the undrafted rookie drew a 15-yard penalty.
Sudfeld, penciled in as Carson Wentz’s primary backup this season, drew a much harsher penalty – surgery on his left wrist, which was broken when he reached back to brace himself.
No good came of this encounter for anyone. The Eagles, who wanted to see Sudfeld play early and extensively in preseason games this year, weren’t able to do that, and Saturday they signed 40-year-old Josh McCown, who might very well supplant Sudfeld as Wentz’s No. 2.
It’s unlikely Mack’s headlong charge into Sudfeld increased his chances of making the Titans; he took a 15-yard penalty on a third-and-10 throwaway near midfield.
Plays like that are why NFL coaches and players increasingly seem to favor practices with other teams – such as the Eagles had with the Baltimore Ravens on Monday and Tuesday – over preseason games, such as Thursday night’s Eagles-Ravens clash at the Linc.
“I think that’s the trend. I think that’s where we’re going,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said this week. “I think that’s the way the league is heading. I like it. I think the players like it … really joint practice, as coaches, we get to set the situations. We get to control the environment … . You don’t get that situation in a game, and this way, we can control that, and work on specific things and get some really good work done with our starters.”
That’s the key difference – coaches aren’t afraid to risk starters in joint practices. Increasingly, starters are held out of preseason games or given minimal work. Wentz’s extensive reps in this week’s joint practices figure to be the only time he faces an opposing defense before the season starts.
The league and the players’ union are starting talks toward a new collective bargaining agreement, to replace the one that runs out following the 2020 season. Owners want an 18-game regular season, something the union has said is out of the question, given the increased physical demands involved. One of the ways being discussed to mitigate some of those physical demands would be replacing some or all preseason games with a series of joint practices.
To 37-year-old Eagles left tackle Jason Peters, this idea makes a great deal of sense. There was no tackling in this week’s joint practices, but Peters plays a position where he neither tackles nor gets tackled. For two days, he worked extensively in pads, in the heat, against the Ravens’ best pass rushers. The only thing different from game action was that when Peters made a mistake, the quarterback behind him didn’t get clobbered.
“We played a game pretty much [Monday]. We got after it,” Peters said. “That wouldn’t be a bad idea, a joint practice for a preseason game. Just put it in a stadium for the fans to watch.”
That last factor might be important. Unlike with regular-season games, NFL teams keep the local TV revenue from preseason games. There would be more money for the league to divide from an 18-game season, but would it be enough to make up for the loss of preseason-game revenue for some teams? As Peters said, teams could charge for (and televise) joint practices.
Peters, who hasn’t played a preseason snap, said he felt he got sharper working against the Ravens. He said the work helped shed bad habits he might have formed, practicing against the same Eagles pass rushers over and over.
“I let [Baltimore’s Pernell] McPhee get up under me, because I’m so used to speed rushers,” Peters said. “I kicked back too far, and he’s a slow rusher.”
Jimmy Smith, the Ravens’ 31-year-old corner, agreed with Peters on the benefits of joint practices. Baltimore also practiced with the Jacksonville Jaguars this month.
“You get two days of good practice, where we’re in a situation where we’re not getting hurt. It’s tagging off [instead of tackling], doing all the right stuff, minus the physicality of a true game,” Smith said.
There is an argument to be made that some physicality helps prepare for the real games. But when coaches won’t risk key players in preseason games, that point becomes largely moot.
Does Wentz need to take hits in the preseason to be ready? Or are hits on a quarterback a type of Russian roulette, with every one he takes increasing the risk of disaster? It sure seems we know which scenario Pederson believes in.
“That’s Coach’s call. I feel good either way,” Wentz said Tuesday, when asked whether he would like to play a series or two Thursday night. “With the Ravens here [for practice] … it’s really good work. So, whether I’m out there in a live situation or not, I feel I’m ready for Week 1.”
Smith said joint practices show him how opponents run specific routes, how they counter what he does, just as well as preseason games do.
This is still a pretty new idea. Less than a decade ago, starters played a series or so in the first preseason game, a couple of series in the second, and a half or so in the third, before resting in the fourth and final exhibition.
Giants coach Pat Shurmur, a former Eagles offensive coordinator, said this week he still thinks there is value in starters getting preseason work, though he wasn’t asked to compare games to joint practices. Shurmur, who hasn’t played running back Saquon Barkley this preseason, conceded that thinking around the league is changing from the days when nearly everyone agreed preseason games were important.