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Preseason madness

Breaking down three options to fix the system

Posted: Monday August 27, 2007 9:34AM; Updated: Monday August 27, 2007 6:31PM
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LaDainian Tomlinson in street clothes, and on the sidelines, is a familiar sight during preseason games.
LaDainian Tomlinson in street clothes, and on the sidelines, is a familiar sight during preseason games.
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Three news items of the week, 10 days before the opening of the 88th NFL season:

I have a feeling The Next Big Thing on Roger Goodell's radar after the Michael Vick case and after the commish gets a handle on concussions and how the league can improve the lives of retired players, will be fixing the preseason.

Goodell's not blind. He sees what a joke preseason games are. Reigning league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson hasn't played in one of them in two years, and the commish sees how other stars such as Steven Jackson are starting to follow in LT's footsteps. He sees the embarrassing yawning gaps of empty seats at some of the August games, with thousands of season-ticket-holders staying home rather than using the tickets to snore through three quarters. (They can't even give them away, apparently.)

He'll see even more of that in the fourth weekend of the games, this week coming up, when, if you're lucky, you'll see the regular players for one series. Some teams, like New England, will quite literally dress only enough rookies and young scrubs to make it through the game, giving 28 or so regulars the night off entirely. (Watch the Patriot sideline Thursday night in Foxboro. It'll look like the sideline at a Montana six-man football game. You'll say, "Hey, where is everybody?'' And everybody you've ever heard of will be in Back Bay, having dinner with the family on a peaceful night off.)

Goodell is not the first commissioner who knew there was something wrong with asking the customers to pay regular-season prices for these stupid games. Paul Tagliabue also found it increasingly hard to take, trying to get fans fired up for the regular season by making them watch backup players in half-empty stadiums when season-ticket-holders couldn't even give the seats away. Football Fever! Catch it!

In baseball, teams play in Class-A stadiums in spring training and charge fans about a third of what they'd charge for the regular games. The same situation would be perfect in football. Instead, the games-are held in the regular stadiums and the prices are the same as those for regular season games. In New England, for instance, fans will play the same price to see Matt Cassel throw to Kelvin Kight this week as they'll pay to see Tom Brady link up with Randy Moss when the real games start.

There are several ways to make over the preseason. As I went on my rounds last week, I surveyed feeling around the league on the three basic options the league has, and here's what I found:

1. Eliminate preseason games entirely and play an 18-game schedule. Zero chance. Too many football people want the games as a means of weed-whacking the rosters down to 53. "If you had no preseason, it'd be Raggedy Andy football the first week or two,'' Indy president Bill Polian told me.

I asked him what every fan would ask, and what I've heard from players and fans the past couple of weeks: What about college football? The colleges don't play preseason games, and their game seems to work just fine come Labor Day weekend.

"But colleges do have preseason games,'' said Polian. "They just don't call them that. Look at what the Big Ten does the first couple of weeks, scheduling Mid-American Conference opponents. [Elsewhere,] maybe Buffalo goes to Auburn, or Troy State to Nebraska. Lots of the big-time colleges play a couple of those before they play conference games, and those games serve as their preseason games.

"There are a few reasons we have to have the preseason games," he added. "In order to play football, you have to condition your body for contact. And you have to get that contact, I believe, in a game-type atmosphere, where you adjust mentally to an opponent and what he's going to do. I think you also have to adjust to the cycle of playing games, the weekly cycle of preparing and playing and recovering. Then there's the test of seeing how players perform when the lights are on in the crucible of competition. It's why I love this fourth preseason game coming up. We'll play all the bubble guys and it'll be the big Petri-dish game for them. It will decide whether we keep five or four tight ends, six or five wide receivers. Who's the second running back?

"I remember the preseason games are how Dominic Rhodes won a job with us. He was having a heck of a time adjusting to our offense out of [Midwestern State] in Texas. He was totally a fish out of water. But when the lights came on he really shined, and he turned out to be an important player for us.''

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