The NFL's preseason structure could be improved. For the players' sake. With limited time on the practice field and four long weeks of mundane exhibition games, they're not getting the reps they need to prepare for the regular season.
Here's what I would change to enhance the evaluation process while putting players in the best position to succeed:
Two joint practice sessions for each team
Given the elimination of two-a-days and the reduced number of padded practices NFL teams can have under the collective bargaining agreement, the key for players in August is finding quality reps. That's why we're starting to see teams schedule joint practices -- four preseason games just doesn't cut it. When will every organization get on board?
Think about it: These sessions allow coaches to create a more physical and demanding environment. Plus, working against another team produces highly competitive matchups while increasing the pace of drills. And you get it all on film.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, whose team has held joint practices this month with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans, sees the value of working with another club. Here's what he said about those practices in an interview with a local radio station:
"They become a really great place for certain types of competition to take place in a controlled environment that you couldn't do before in the preseason games," he said. "Now it allows other players and other situations to play out in the preseason games. These [joint practices] have become a great adjunct to the first few weeks of preseason. I think it makes a big difference. It actually allows you to evaluate your talent in a way you couldn't before. I think it is a real plus."
I went through joint practices during my career, and the script doesn't have to change when a team comes to town. Inside run, 7-on-7, team, one-on-ones. Throw in some two-minute work, a team blitz period and even a live goal-line drill. But instead of working against your own guys -- again -- in camp when the tempo starts to take a dip, these joint practices will be faster and tougher and will generate more opportunities for players to be evaluated.
Can these sessions get a little heated at times? Sure, but that's just window dressing. And the real benefits are there for everyone to see. Veterans get to practice against new looks, make adjustments and then watch high-level tape at night in meetings. The rookies? They get a small taste (in a scripted environment) of just how fast and physical this league can be. Make mistakes, improve your technique and adjust to pro talent. Gotta have that.
As a coach, I would seek those reps for my players. I'm talking about practice snaps that come in competitive situations where I can properly grade the positives and identify the negatives that must be corrected.
To get that, I have to see the speed and energy level increase on the field. Holding multiple joint sessions -- I would schedule two per team -- gets that done. And it rolls right into my next fix for the preseason ...
Live, controlled scrimmages
One way to cap these joint sessions is to schedule a live, controlled scrimmage at the end of the week with the two clubs -- instead of a preseason game.
Now, would owners agree to dump preseason games and all the revenue that comes from these preseason contests in August? Nah, not completely. That's a tough sell. But if these scrimmages could be held in stadiums, where fans would have to pay some cash to get in and watch some of the stars compete, then maybe we have a solution here. And that solution is also a positive in terms of player and team development.
The issue with the preseason schedule is the flow of the games. With so many substitutions and players sitting out, games are choppy at best. And this prevents coaches from seeing players in critical situations that need to be drilled versus live competition. For example, coaches might not get to see a rookie quarterback run the four-minute drill or a young defensive back playing man coverage in the deep red zone when the field shrinks and technique wins.
But with a controlled scrimmage, coaches from both teams can get together and set the game script. If you need more reps as a defense in a two-minute situation, then you get it. The same with backed-up situations for the offenses, third-and-7-to-10, or short yardage. These teams can also rep the kicking game. And that's where a lot of guys are going to make the team.
Again, we are talking about quality reps -- when the film is rolling. Not only are teams put in great position to evaluate the roster with cuts coming up, but it's also excellent work to prep for the regular season. Veterans need those reps. Take some risks. Find out what works. And what needs to be fixed. Plus, they have to hit. It's time to set your pads in August.
When I was in Washington, we used to scrimmage the Ravens before the preseason schedule started. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Those were legit scrimmages. Plus, you can still protect the quarterback if you want to -- just throw a red jersey on him -- bring in refs, and use the play clock. And like those joint practice sessions, the competition takes a big jump forward.
I'll take a scrimmage where I can control the game situation all day over those first two weeks of the preseason schedule.
Reduce the preseason slate to two games
With joint practices and controlled scrimmages, NFL teams will get a lot of work in early August. And that means they can cut down actual preseason games. That's plenty of live game time for the vets, and there are still reps on the field for the young cats as they try to make the squad.
Remember, the preseason has changed dramatically. Back in my rookie season in 2000, I was lining up versus Troy Aikman and the Cowboys during the fourth preseason game. The starting safety got banged up, and I had the chance to go in. We don't see that anymore. In fact, the starters don't play much -- if at all -- during the first couple of weeks of the preseason. Just look at veteran RB Adrian Peterson. The newest New Orleans Saints running back hasn't carried the ball in a preseason game since 2011.
I still see value in starters getting some work in during the preseason. You need the reps, the tackling, the speed that cannot be replicated in your own camp. But with two games on the schedule, starters can get enough reps, and it also leaves some room for guys to truly battle for those final couple of spots on the roster. These games are graded, and every team in the league is going to watch that film.
This isn't a perfect fix for the preseason, but it's a way NFL teams can create more competition for jobs, increase the evaluation process, and produce an exhibition schedule that better prepares players for the start of the regular season. This would be a move in the right direction.
ESPN.com NFL analyst Matt Bowen played seven seasons as a defensive back in the NFL.