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Analysis

NFL must listen to its own and shrink preseason

The NFL staged 16 games Thursday night – including the Buffalo Bills' entertaining 21-point fourth-quarter rally for a 27-23 victory against the Minnesota Vikings at New Era Field – that didn't need to be played.

Fourth preseason games – and fifth for those two unfortunate clubs that took part in the annual Hall of Fame Game in Canton – are the epitome of uselessness.

Sure, some coaches, such as the Bills' Sean McDermott, will say they help with the evaluation of final roster spots with the cut to the regular-season maximum of 53 set for Saturday. He told play-by-play announcer John Murphy before kickoff that about a half-dozen would be decided by performances against the Vikings.

Fine.

But determining who to keep from among players destined to make minimal contributions isn't enough to justify playing a game so unimportant that virtually no starters are in uniform, let alone play. The Oakland Raiders reportedly brought fewer than 50 players to Seattle for their preseason-closing game against the Seahawks. The Los Angeles Rams unapologetically decided to keep all of their starters out of all four exhibition outings.

The voices that have called for the NFL preseason to be shortened have never been louder. And they should be heard, hopefully in time for next summer.

Even some team owners, who reap the biggest rewards from the summer schedule because of their ability to collect broadcast revenue and charge full price for tickets without having to give players full pay from their contracts until the regular season, are proposing a reduction of games that don't matter. The Washington Post has reported that those familiar with the league's thinking are "increasingly convinced" a shorter preseason will happen in the not-too-distant future.

The owners see what the rest of us see. Empty seats. Poor execution, especially from the reserves who end up seeing more playing time than the starters. Unnecessary injury risk. They see an element of their game that long became out of date ... if it ever was in.

The vast majority of rosters that teams take into the regular season were set before the preseason even began. If not, then the wrong people are making the football decisions for their franchises.

Jerry Jones, for one, thinks it makes sense to go with a two-game preseason as part of a plan to expand the regular season from 16 to 18 games. I have no problem with replacing two games that don't count with two that do, and I'm guessing a fair number of players who appreciate the increased revenue they would receive along with the owners. According to an estimate Jones provided to The Dallas Morning News, two more regular-season games would mean an additional $1 billion in revenue for players, or about $589,000 per player on a 53-man roster per season.

The NFL Players Association is known to strongly oppose having extra regular-season games, arguing they would compromise player safety. But Jones challenged that notion.

"I can make the case that we have an uptick in concussions in the preseason,'' Jones told The Morning News. "If you look at it, I would contend there would be less exposure.''

Another possibility to make up for lost preseason revenue, per The Washington Post's reporting, is an expansion of the playoff field by eliminating one of the two byes currently in place.

Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien, who lost running back Lamar Miller to a season-ending torn ACL and MCL, might have the best solution of all. Recognizing the growing trend of teams scheduling joint practices, such as those the Bills had with the Carolina Panthers before their Aug. 16 game in Charlotte, thinks each club could replace two preseason contests with a pair of joint sessions.

And here's the clincher from O'Brien: Televise the joint practices to pick up some of the lost revenue.

"Put them on TV," he told reporters. "Show J.J. Watt going on-on-one with an offensive tackle, show DeAndre Hopkins going one-on-one with a corner. ... I'm just saying, to me, that would be a good way to go, get two or three joint practices, two preseason games, sounds good to me. But that's not anything that I'm going to be in the decision-making process of."

True. NFL owners and others in the league's hierarchy aren't in the habit of following the wishes of coaches.

However, there seems to be the strongest movement yet to do something about what is easily the weakest part of a brand that in almost every other way does things right.

The NFL has to get this one right and spare its players, coaches and fans the misery by putting at least half of the preseason out of its misery.

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