We hear it all summer. The preseason is a waste. Let’s get on to the real thing. Colleges do it, why can’t the pros?
The NFL can’t — or won’t — because the exhibition games actually do serve a purpose for people such as officiating chief Dean Blandino and head of football operations Troy Vincent. They have been mining the preseason matchups for data that could lead to significant changes.
The information gathering includes looking at kickoffs, how technology is used, officiating, and, yes, the length of the preseason.
Vincent, a former star defensive back in the league and previous president of the players’ union before becoming an assistant to Commissioner Roger Goodell, smiles dryly when asked about cutting back the preseason schedule from four games to three. Or two. Or, can you imagine, none?
He then cites the value of summer contests.
“We are learning from all the data, whether it’s chips in the football or using an eighth official or moving touchbacks to the 25 (yard line),” Vincent says.
And what is the NFL finding out? Here’s what Vincent and Blandino are examining:
KICKOFFS — The theory on having touchbacks move 5 more yards to the 25 is it will reduce the number of returns in what is considered one of the most dangerous (yet entertaining) plays in the sport.
“The injury numbers lead us to believe there are more injuries on kick returns, so is there a way to protect our players from unnecessary risk?” Blandino asks. “We have engaged special teams special teams coaches, and the competition committee will continue to look at it. We need another year’s data.
“We got a lot of really good ideas from special teams coaches. Concepts such as no running starts for kick team players; eliminate double-team blocks; no two-man wedge blocks; bringing a minimum number of return team players up to the front line so it looks more like a punt return — all those things have been suggested.”
Vincent stresses the NFL will still play football.
“‘We’re not taking the foot out of the game,” he says. “It’s our responsibility to look at kickoffs and analyze and make adjustments, to understand how these injuries are associated with our game. These are dynamic plays, and we want to know the data better so we can do better.”
OFFICIATING — The NFL has rules, and rules on top of those rules, with tangents and specific applications. Seems like it takes a doctorate to decipher the rulebook.
What does appear to make sense is adding an eighth official on the field, something the NFL has experimented with in the preseason.
Is something imminent?
“That extra set of eyes fills some gaps,” Blandino says. “The feedback was positive. We’re in the process of … putting together a summary for the competition committee and we will discuss it, and in 2017 make a recommendation to the clubs for 2017 or beyond.
“We feel good about the pipeline of officials ready to come into the league,” he added.
The NFL also is looking into how virtual reality in training can sharpen officiating.
TECHNOLOGY — The use of videos on the sideline Microsoft Surface tablets has been tabled for regular-season games. There’s still plenty of debate among coaches about potential competitive advantages, so, for now, only photos are available on the sideline.
Reservations start with a lack of familiarity and a general slippery grasp on technology by many in the league. Vincent gets feedback from some coaches who simply like to do things the old-fashioned way.
“Our thought is why not utilize the technology to advance the game. But we must be sure we are advancing the game,” he said.
“The players are loving it and every club has gotten the opportunity to experience it in the preseason,” Vincent said. “It’s inevitable with this technology because the players have all grown up with it. There are some coaches who grew up in this digital era.”
The competition committee believed owners would approve sideline videos last March, but they sought more information. It certainly will be recommended again.
Blandino’s officials are using tracking devices to monitor their game movements, and a performance and wellness group works with them to build rest and recovery programs based on the data.
“Depending on the type of game and the weather, and how much each official moved — not just total distance but the intensity of the movement — they take the body composition and create a formula, a workload number,” Blandino says. “If they see that it was high, here is what we are recommending for rest.
“It’s pushing the envelope on and a big priority,” he added.
SHORTER PRESEASON — Former Giants coach Tom Coughlin is helping Vincent’s department in its research on the length of the preseason. They’ve asked ownership “and we have gotten mixed responses,” he says.
Traditionalists, especially coaches, say a cutback won’t allow enough time to build the team.
“A lot of people with Lombardi Trophies in their lobby are saying that,” Vincent says.
“My opposition to getting rid of the fourth game is really being able to see fourth- through seventh-rounders and undrafted free agents and other free agents trying to make the team. Will they get a long enough look? Remember, there is nothing like evaluating performance in real time. Practice and meetings can tell you so much, but there is nothing that equates to being on the field in games.
“We’re also listening to the players,” Vincent said. “Some say, ‘If I only had two games, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity to make the team. ‘A guy like that might not even get on the field.”