Until the last six to 10 years, training camps lasted longer, involved many more hours of practice, and were much more intense. Key players played more extensively in the preseason games, and until the late 70s there were more preseason games on the schedule.
For many decades, teams played however many exhibition games they wanted – before, during, and after the regular season. Beginning in the 1960s, teams went to a 14 regular-season game schedule, and the preseason period was reduced to four or five games. In the 1970s, NFL teams began to view preseason games as a revenue source (and one not shared with the players). Some teams required season-ticket holders to pay for a number of preseason tickets if they wanted to keep their season tickets.
From 1970 through 1977, NFL teams played six exhibition games, including some played at neutral sites. Some fans might recall the Green Bay Packers hosting a game each year at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison until the late 90s. Ever since 1978, however, teams have played 16 regular season games and four preseason games (not counting Hall of Fame games in Canton). The league went to a 32-team format in 2002 when the Houston Texans were added. There has been much talk of reducing the number of preseason games to three or even fewer.
Until the last half-dozen or so years, I would say the primary intent of teams during preseason games was to ready the team’s starters, and especially the key players, for the regular season. The battle-hardening approach has succumbed, however, to the reality that injuries are on the increase in the NFL – as the Packers demonstrated on Thursday with at least five players being removed from the game.
Now the primary intent is clearly to evaluate the rookies and new acquisitions, and to prevent key players from being exposed to injuries.
The bottom line is that NFL players are getting much less practice in training camp than ever before – also due to injury fears – and teams’ key players are getting much less playing time in the fewer exhibition games there are than there were in the past. It showed on Thursday.
I have a premise that a team’s starting players need considerable preseason game experience to be fully ready for the first couple of regular season games. It would be difficult to prove, though. One would probably need to go back and rate the teams that are most and least in the habit of playing their starters and stars during preseason games, and then comparing how well each of the two groups did in their first regular season game or two. Maybe I’ll get around to such an analysis some day.
But even if the importance of game experience in the preseason could be proved, how many coaches would be brave enough – and willing to assume accountability for it – to make the tradeoff between game experience and injury risk? I’ll grant you it’s a delicate balance that every head coach has to try to reach.