Inside Slant: Recasting the NFL preseason

The Cincinnati Bengals' defense busted their coverage midway through the first quarter Sunday night. No one followed Arizona Cardinals receiver Michael Floyd down the right sideline on what should have been an easy 37-yard touchdown pass.

No matter. Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer's pass sailed far out of bounds and fell incomplete.

On the Cardinals' next possession, receiver Larry Fitzgerald got behind cornerback Terence Newman down the middle. Fitzgerald, however, had run the wrong route. Palmer's pass headed directly toward Newman, who intercepted and returned it 54 yards for the only touchdown scored before the teams removed their starters.

Veteran observers of the NFL preseason would hardly blink at that series of plays, which more closely resemble a full-contact practice than an attempt to compete. This, of course, is nothing new. For years, the league's preseason games have drawn scrutiny for their quality of play and minimal star power. This summer, a surge in penalty flags have added six excruciating minutes to the average game compared to the 2013 preseason.

One day, the preseason might be a chip in negotiations for an 18-game season. For now, however, the NFL is moving toward a unique strategy for perpetuating what seems to be a new vision for the preseason: Lowering expectations.

Fans who attended Sunday night's game at University of Phoenix Stadium bought tickets as part of the Cardinals' variable pricing plan. Season-ticket holders paid as low as $30 per seat. Depending on their location, some seats were discounted more than 50 percent from key regular-season games.

About a third of the NFL's teams have implemented this approach, one that is widely used in other sports, and they reflect a basic and fair acknowledgement from owners: Pretend games populated mostly by backup players shouldn't cost the same as the real ones played by the stars. And for those who still don't want any part of the preseason, the lower price point might make the tickets easier to re-sell.

"This variable pricing, some people feel like that's a way to solve the preseason issue," Green Bay Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy said, "in terms of quality of play and what you're paying. If you reduce the prices by 50 percent, people will feel better about it."

For season-ticket holders, of course, variable pricing is all about perception. The total cost of most season packages, according to Murphy, are unchanged. Games are now classified in cost tiers, and the loss in preseason revenue is recaptured by increases in key games during the regular season. The Cardinals, for instance, have three price points for each ticket: preseason, prime and premium.

Is it enough to appease fans and sponsors? Does a cheaper ticket recast the preseason in a more palatable way? That question might take a few years to answer. What we know now is that the league's teams and football operations arm have intensified their use of the preseason for experimentation and alternative approaches while increasingly protecting star players from injuries.

Murphy's Packers, for instance, did not use quarterback Aaron Rodgers in their first preseason game. During the next two weeks, Rodgers threw 33 passes in 69 snaps. The New England Patriots took almost an identical approach with quarterback Tom Brady (31 passes, 66 snaps). Both could sit out the preseason finale Thursday night, and Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson isn't expected to take a preseason carry for the third consecutive season.

Meanwhile, place-kickers spent the first two weeks of the preseason attempting 33-yard extra points. And finally, the NFL's decision to use the preseason as a re-training ground for legal pass defense has led to a five-fold increase in illegal contact and defensive holding penalties. The three-week sum for those penalties (230) is approaching the 17-week total from the 2013 regular season (285).

Overall, penalties (accepted and declined) are up nearly 30 percent compared to the 2013 preseason. The ensuing panic prompted vice president of officiating Dean Blandino to make the media rounds to reassure everyone -- players, coaches, fans, media members -- that the surge is temporary.

"As preseason continues and into the regular season," Blandino said on ESPN Radio, "those numbers will start to regulate."

The gush of penalties has lengthened these games, but the quality of play has probably made the games seem longer than they really were. The average preseason game in 2014 (186 minutes) has actually been shorter than the average game during the 2013 regular season (190), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

No one knows the future of the NFL preseason. It could well be truncated if the league moves to an 18-game regular season, and the emergence of dual training camp practices provides a lower-key alternative. The summer of 2014, however, has offered us a vision for future years: Cheaper tickets for dramatized practices, a stage for rule experimentation and a platform for adjusting style of play. Will you buy it? The NFL hopes so.