Are NFL Preseason Games Necessary?

Last Friday, the National Football League Players Association dropped a bombshell when they voted, via conference call, against playing any exhibition — that is, preseason — games, this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The union, in its conference call, suggested a longer runway — after all, as the Grass Roots sang in their last hit single of any consequence in 1972, the runway is the one way — to the regular season than a four-week exhibition season would provide, and one that does not include any exhibition games.

The owners, for their part, have expressed a willingness to cut the preseason from four games to two — the stand-alone Hall of Fame Game, which would have forced the Cowboys and Steelers to play one more exhibition game than the other 30 teams, has already been canceled, prompting hints that it could be abolished and merely lead off Week 1 of the preseason in future years instead (say, by playing it on a Thursday night) — with the union preferring a four-step protocol, spanning 48 days, starting with a three-day testing period of all players upon arrival at training camp, followed by a special 21-day strength and conditioning program, an OTA-like third stage lasting 10 days, and finally a two-week "traditional" training camp, during which each team could play their two exhibition games if the owners insist on playing them, which they claim they have the right to do.

But a comparison between the NFL and other football leagues and associations, both professional and college, is highly instructive: from 1986 through 2018, the CFL played two exhibition games over three weeks, followed by 18 regular-season games played over 20 weeks (the fact that the CFL has an odd number of teams means that at least one, and in some weeks even three, teams must be given a bye), then went to an 18-games-over-21-weeks format in 2019, because in 1986-2018 one team actually had to play two games in Week 2 (after having had a bye in Week 1 along with two other teams), the first generally on a Thursday night and the second on a Tuesday night. College football has never played any exhibition games, and neither did the USFL in its three-year existence (the USFL also had an 18-game regular season, with no bye week).

And if the owners are smart enough — and greedy enough — they can add a second bye week for each team starting in 2022 (when a new contract with the networks would take effect), so that the new 17-game regular-season schedule gets played over 19 weeks. Curiously, the new collective bargaining agreement made no mention of a second bye week, one way or the other, but under no circumstances would the union oppose it — since with twice as many byes, there could be a guaranteed bye the previous week for any team playing a Thursday night game, these games being a major sore point for the players — and this was not covered in the CBA, either.

The new CBA does call for a three-game preseason once the 17th regular-season game is added, which the owners could decide to implement in either 2021, 2022, or 2023.

But what if the union waves it in the owners' faces that they "got away with" having only two preseason games this year? Or even none?

Hope springs eternal!

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Comments and Conversation

July 8, 2020


The USFL actually DID play preseason games its last two seasons. Perhaps some research would be in order for you.

July 8, 2020

Kyle Smith:

The USFL did play exhibition games. We have documentation.

— Kyle Smith, The USFL Project

July 9, 2020

Alan Dawson:

The USFL played exhibition games including one at Wembley over here in England, video of some of their preseason games are still available

July 11, 2020

Anthony Brancato:

Did every USFL team play preseason games in all three seasons of its existence? And show me where college football has ever played them.

And if the NFL ends up not playing any preseason games this season, it opens up the argument in favor of not playing any such games in future seasons - just like Super Bowl XXXVI, which was played in February because of 9/11, made it “acceptable” to play future Super Bowls in February, as all but one Super Bowl played since (Super Bowl XXXVII) has been so played.

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