NAPA — If you’re an NFL addict tweaking for game action, we have good news: The Raiders play at Arizona Saturday. Get set for heavy, heavy doses of Pharoah Brown, John Crockett and Shalom Luani.
No offense meant toward those young prospects, but the guys we really want to see, like quarterback Derek Carr and running back Marshawn Lynch, are likely to take the field for only a few snaps.
And that may be a few too many.
NFL teams have cut back significantly on the physical demands they place on their athletes, especially during the spring and summer. Much of that is mandated by the league’s collective bargaining agreement, but some is the product of deeper knowledge and better science.
“Every now and then I’ll look at a schedule and I’ll think, ‘Man, that looks a whole lot different,’ because I remember being in pads twice a day and a walk-through after that,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said Thursday, the team’s last practice day before facing the Cardinals. “That’s just what it was then. It’s a different time. I think we do a better job of being responsible with the guys and the way we prepare them.”
And they should go even further.
I acknowledge that watching third-string Raiders defensive end Jimmy Bean take aim at third-string Arizona quarterback Blaine Gabbert is no one’s idea of entertainment. The NFL should be ashamed to charge full price for preseason games and include them in the cost of season ticket packages. But that’s a different column altogether.
Today’s topic is player safety, the great moving target of pro football. And yeah, it’s complicated.
NFL football is not only the most violent team sport, it’s the most complex. To adequately run and defend plays, you need countless mind-dulling practice repetitions and at least a few snaps against guys wearing different helmets.
It’s also unreasonable to expect human bodies to step onto football fields and run into each other in Week 1 without a little warmup action.
These factors compel NFL coaches to play their stars in August, though the final score means nothing.
But the counter argument is even more obvious. It’s the specter of injuries, a monster that showed up right on time this week.
On Thursday, the first night of the year with multiple NFL preseason games, the fallen included Vikings starting cornerback Trae Waynes (shoulder) and running back Bishop Sankey (knee), Washington linebacker Trent Murphy (knee), Patriots rookie defensive end Deatrich Wise (head injury), Browns starting safety Ibraheim Campbell (head injury), Packers cornerback Damarious Randall (head injury) and Broncos defensive end Billy Winn (knee).
Malachi Dupre, a rookie wide receiver with Green Bay, left the field on a stretcher in the fourth quarter and was taken to a hospital following a hard hit to the chest.
There were other injuries. And when the Raiders play the Cardinals Saturday, there will be more. With luck, they won’t be season-ending events like Dallas quarterback Tony Romo’s broken vertebra in 2016, or Green Bay wide receiver Jordy Nelson’s torn ACL in 2015, or St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford’s torn ACL in 2014.
Guys get hurt in practice, too, sometimes severely. But the rate isn’t as high. So divvying up playing time in the preseason becomes a tightrope walk for NFL coaches. The goal is to get their players as much work as possible, with as little physical fallout. As Del Rio suggested, the calculus has changed over time, away from risk and toward safety.
It should continue down that path.
I know a lot of people don’t sympathize with professional athletes because they are so well compensated. But you don’t have to look at this as a moral issue. It’s simply protecting your investments. Derek Carr will make more than $15.5 million this year in salary and bonuses. When he broke his fibula in Week 16 last year, the Raiders’ season crumpled in a heap along with him. And let’s be real — if he were to tear up his knee in a preseason game, the team would be in ruins this year, too.
Carr should take only a handful of snaps throughout the entire preseason. And Khalil Mack (just under $6 million), who mans a position that requires far less analysis and coordination with teammates, has no reason to play a down.
Young guys and free-agent acquisitions learning new systems probably need to be exposed to more fire. And a team like the 49ers, trying to rise from the ashes of a 2-14 season, can be forgiven for playing their starters in August. For the Raiders, it’s folly.
Del Rio didn’t say anything to change my overall perspective on this topic, but he did adjust it a little with one piece of insight.
“I always felt as a player that my best conditioning level was when I first reported to camp,” said the 11-year NFL linebacker. “Then it would just go down from there, and we’d open the season and I’d be trying to come back to life. I think we do a better job now of managing that whole process.”
I never really thought of it that way, though I should have. When I covered the Raiders full-time, you could see players wearing down deep into camp, and some would say as much.
I had been thinking that the traditional rhythm of preseason action made sense. Get your feet wet in Week 1, ramp up playing time a bit in Week 2, max out in Week 3 by playing starters for an entire half or more, then dial it back with minimal exposure in Week 4.
Del Rio made me recalibrate. I can understand why coaches are eager to keep the starters together in preseason Week 3. They want to establish some efficiency a couple weeks ahead of the regular season. I say you can do that on the practice field.
Here’s a better formula: The Raiders should go ahead and play Carr and Lynch and Michael Crabtree for a series or two against the Cardinals. The next week, at home against the Rams, starters should see significant action, maybe through the first quarter.
And that’s it. Shut down your No. 1s for the rest of August and let the backups fight for roster spots.
Every time an NFL player steps on the field, the team is gambling with their health. With so little to gain this time of year, why even roll those dice?
You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.