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.