What had long been a steady simmer within the highest reaches of the NFL headquarters about the state of preseason football has become more of a crackling fire.
Something is going to change, and likely sooner rather than later.
Being in New York City for the past few days -- the league's hub -- there were no shortage of well-connected football people whispering (if not outright roaring) about the number of preseason games, how long the poor product and the preponderance of injuries have irritated commissioner Roger Goodell, and about the climate being ripe to actually do something about it.
Don't get me wrong: the exhibition season isn't going to be done away with -- as Ravens coach John Harbaugh advocated for recently -- and owners won't be willing to merely walk away from the revenues that come from playing them. But the argument is growing more pervasive that something needs to start happening to alter this month-long cavalcade of partially filled stadiums, poor execution and far too many injury carts on the field.
Change of some sort is on the way.
There is much work to be done and plenty of logistics to be worked out (especially on the money side), but I'm not fully convinced there will be four preseason games per team next season. There is a lot of chatter about altering the fourth game. For starters, some in the league office believe two games (one home/one road) would suffice and with the NFL vigilantly fighting to change its image and perception regarding health and safety issues, eliminating some meaningless football exhibitions seems to many like a good place to focus.
Yes, some coaches staunchly believe they need the fourth game to fully evaluate their roster and to provide a forum for more playing time for bubble guys who may be needed to start weeks or months down the road (more in that in a minute), but in the pecking order of how things get done in this league, coaches rank down lower than you might think.
There are various cost/benefit studies being done and reports being written and suggestions being made, and a definite movement is afoot to enact some real alterations to the preseason.
There could be extended practice time and more emphasis on joint practices between teams (which is already on the rise). There could be added practices that take place without helmets and hitting. At this point it could take several different shapes. But something will change, soon, and then it could continue in an incremental fashion until the landscape looks drastically different five years from now.
So, what about those coaches who will be ticked off by the loss of these games? What about those players who so desperately need those game reps? Well, as I detailed at length this spring, the league is also doing significant legwork putting in place a plan for a developmental league or in-season academy that would provide a structured, football-first training environment for some of those neediest players and create a better workforce of available talent via the weekly workout circuit at attrition inevitably takes holds of some rosters.
Ideally, many would love a full-blown spring league where young players would hone their craft against other young NFL players, but that will entail a massive undertaking with the NFLPA and would have to be collectively bargained, and, well, yeah, that will take some doing and likely a long time if it ever came to fruition.
In the meantime, I wouldn't be shocked if we see fewer NFL football exhibitions by this time next summer and perhaps the announcement of an official NFL in-season training facility overseen by top former NFL coaches and perhaps even some far more outside-the-box concepts floated along the way.
More notes from around the NFL
Talking to some teams who have watched a lot of Saints preseason tape, and the things you hear about that defense are concerning. I'm not sure it could be worse than it's been the past few years; I just don't know how much better it'll be, either. The defensive tackles are a big issue and frankly not much has been made of their loss of first-round pick Sheldon Rankins. That has left a huge hole in the middle of the defense and created yet another issue to try to solve on a defense that hasn't gotten a whole lot right since its Super Bowl heyday.
The first month of the season will tell us a lot about Robert Griffin III and the Browns. He throws a great deep ball and it's been eliciting oohs and aahs all training camp and preseason, and I get it. But there are still concerns about his progressions and reading the whole field and connecting on intermediate stuff, and behind that offensive line -- against teams that will be throwing intricate stunts and blitzes at them once the games actually count -- I'm not sure how many of those deep balls he's going to get off without taking a severe beating. If they can't control the game on the ground I suspect huge issues there.
Not to make too much of the preseason, again, but Jay Cutler is another guy I'm not sure we're seeing on Sundays by, say, November. That offense has been beyond ugly, his protection is a massive issue, he's short a bunch of his old weapons and in a contract year. Be on body language alert. I'm sure those sideline cameras will pick up some animated reactions as these drives ends in sacks and punts, and, I suspect, a return to the turnover-heavy days of years past (except for 2015).
Still can't help but wonder if the Cowboys try to move some offensive line depth before the final cuts, perhaps as part of a package for a quarterback now.
Had Ryan Fitzpatrick continued his holdout into the season, I wonder what the Vikings would've been willing to pay him for one year of work? Surely still not what he was able to pocket from the Jets. Baffling that thing went on as long as it did and he looked pretty rusty in the third preseason game. His history would indicate he won't be able to avoid a big turnover year twice in a row. Chan Gailey is a heck of a coordinator, but we'll see.
And finally ...
If you are a GM out there who figures your QB-crisis could be solved by Mike Glennon, Josh McCown or AJ McCarron, you'd better be prepared to part with a lot. Based on what I've heard, I don't think you get of them for less than a second-day draft pick and in some cases they might hold out for a first-rounder. All would prefer to keep those top backups all things being equal, so trade offers would have to be designed to truly persuade.