The inaugural three-game NFL exhibition season has brought out different schools of thought on how the penultimate and final games should be handled.
In the old days where the third exhibition was always a dress rehearsal for the season and the fourth a tryout for the bottom-of-roster players, this year's shortened preseason has shown there's no uniformity among teams in how they treat these games. First-string offenses are regularly going against second-team defenses and vice versa, and that will likely continue this week as the preseason wraps up.
Just like there's no unanimity on how to handle playing time in these exhibitions, there's also no consensus on how to handle the upcoming roster cutdowns from 80 to 53. That deadline, which has long been the Saturday following the final exhibitions that were all played on Thursday, is now Tuesday, Sept. 1. What's more, eight teams play Friday, 14 play Saturday and 10 play Sunday, making for a new staggered end to the preseason.
"It's unprecedented," one agent told CBS Sports. "Teams are going to wait to see what other teams do."
Since it's been two years you may not remember that well, so here's how final cuts used to go: All 32 teams played on Thursday night. They had until 4 p.m. ET Saturday to get their roster down to 53 players, and teams would make those cuts Friday night or Saturday morning. On Sunday, they had to get their waiver claims in, and shortly after they could sign players to their practice squad. (Back then it was 10 players, but it has since been increased to 16, with up to six veterans who have no limit on the number of accrued seasons.)
This year, it would seem teams who play earlier in the weekend will be at an advantage over the teams playing late Saturday or Sunday. They'll know, for the most part, who has and has not made their final roster and who they hope to keep for the practice squad regardless of the outcome of other teams' cuts.
But will a team playing, say, Friday get their roster down to 53 on Saturday? Agents I spoke to are hopeful teams will make their decisions known ASAP. "Hard to imagine anyone waiting when they don't have to," another agent told CBS Sports. And from the player representative point of view, that's logical. Why wait a few days to cut the guy? Help him out and let him go as soon as you know so he can find a landing spot.
But after speaking with personnel members across nearly 10 teams, it doesn't seem like teams will share that perspective. The general idea is that cutdowns will go one of two ways in the coming week.
One idea is that teams will treat Tuesday like the old Saturday deadline and make cuts Monday night and Tuesday morning. Even though there's more time between the game and deadline (unless you're playing Sunday), teams may not feel like they have to do anything differently than in years past.
There are competitive advantages baked into this classic game of chicken logic. You wait to see what players have been cut elsewhere that you may want on your team. You hold out hope that another club will trade you a future pick for a player you were going to cut anyway. And lastly, you wait as long as possible to cut guys you plan to place on your practice squad so that they don't dangle out on the waiver wire for too long.
The other scenario is one that splits the baby for teams and players and their agents. If a team knows they aren't retaining players who have no trade value and who were around to get through the final exhibition, they can release those players in a "soft cut" wave. That could be going from 80 players to about 70, and it could be done the day or so after the final exhibition game.
The other cuts — the ones that involve the game of chicken where you try to sneak players through waivers — can then be made on Monday night into Tuesday morning.
That scenario is one most teams I spoke with are leaning. Going in waves would make for a less cumbersome waiver wire on Wednesday. It gives players as much of a heads up as you can while maintaining a competitive edge. It doesn't expose players to waivers you hope to retain, but have to cut, longer than 24 or so hours.
Patterns will begin to form for preseason routines after going through this three-exhibition game schedule and new cutdown deadline. There's no tried-and-true best way to attack either one since it's the first time we're going through it. But as it stands now, I'd anticipate a couple waves of cuts after this weekend's preseason action.