When New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was considering how to proceed with the team’s backup quarterback spot prior to the 2019 season, preseason games were critical in his analysis.
Tom Brady was locked into the top spot, with Brian Hoyer providing veteran insurance and fourth-round draft pick Jarrett Stidham offering developmental upside. Would Belichick keep all three on the 53-man roster? Or would Stidham show enough to assume the often overlooked but critically important No. 2 job?
If not for preseason games, Belichick’s final decision — elevating Stidham and releasing Hoyer — might have been different. With no preseason games this season, in addition to no joint practices with other teams, decisions like the one Belichick made last year are a lot more complicated.
It is why what all NFL teams face in 2020 is truly uncharted territory.
No rookie quarterback in Belichick’s 20 years as coach totaled as many pass attempts (90) or played as well as Stidham did last preseason. He completed 61-of-90 (67.8%) for 731 yards with four TD passes and one interception. And he wasn’t just throwing checkdowns; according to NFL Next Gen Stats data, eight of his passes, including two of the touchdowns, traveled at least 20 yards downfield (8.9%, just under the league average of 10.8%).
The decisive measure of how Belichick used preseason action as a foundational part of his analysis was when he sat Hoyer the final two games. In explaining the decision, he said simply, “Brian’s played a lot of football.” In other words, he knew what he had in Hoyer but needed to see more of Stidham.
“Preseason games were huge,” said longtime NFL assistant coach Brad Seely, who retired in May as one of the game’s top special teams coaches after 31 years. “Especially as the years went on, the contact phase of it became so limited in practice. You just don’t want to get anybody hurt. There were times where other than practicing against another team, those opportunities and then the game were the only time you got to see guys do things.”
As teams across the NFL reported for training camp last week, head coaches echoed Seely’s thoughts, acknowledging it is up to them to adjust.
“It’ll be new for everybody,” said second-year Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, who compared it to his time as Texas Tech’s coach (2013-18), as there are no preseason games in college. “We’ll do the best we can to maximize those padded practices [maximum of 14]. You’re trying to get your starters and No. 2 guys ready, and at the same time do evaluations on the young guys. Practice scheduling will be key.”
“Just coming up with creative ways. I do a couple live practices during camp anyway, [but] I have to do maybe more scrimmages and put our young players, the guys we need answers on, in those situations,” Pederson said. “I have to come up with ways of having game-like situations in practice, because we are missing the preseason games. So it can definitely be done.”
But at what cost?
“I feel bad for the younger guys, the free agents, because that’s really where you get noticed — the preseason games,” said Seely, who won three Super Bowl championships as a member of Belichick’s coaching staff in the early 2000s.
“We had a lot of guys that went through OTAs, they were rookies, and you thought, ‘They have no chance to make a team.’ Then they kind of get it, work hard in the offseason and in the little break we have in the summer, to figure out what they have to do to get better. Then they come back, you put the pads on, and it’s, ‘Wow, this guy has a chance.’
“They lost all that this year. That will be hard for some guys, because it takes a while for the light to come on. It’s a different game than college football.”
Veteran Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians sees it similarly, and he has been considering different ways to help bridge the gap from having no spring practices, and no preseason games.
“It’s definitely hurting the younger players, especially undrafted free agents,” Arians said. “All the rookies missed over 400 snaps in the spring. We’ll try to catch back up and do two fields of practice when we’re in limited 90-minute to 125-minute practices. It’s going to be very hard for them, and I don’t have anybody penciled in as starters until I see them play and not make mistakes.”
Kirk Morrison explains how the NFL’s decision to cut preseason games can have a positive impact on the players.
Arians acknowledged the quality of play across the NFL is “definitely going to take a hit” early in the season, in part because players won’t be in the “same football shape” they would have been otherwise.
Seely sees another trickle-down effect: Good coaching has a chance to shine more than ever.
“The biggest difference in my experience, when you had four preseason games, is that guys just figured it out. I’m not going to say coaching wasn’t involved, but guys would see the film of the games, see what they did wrong, hear about other guys and what they did right, and they could figure it out. So I think coaching will be much more important this year, because you have to get your guys ready without any of those benefits,” he said.
“Now, they only get to see themselves until there is a real game. So you have to do a great job of whatever your teaching methods are, whether it’s on a Zoom meeting, or socially distant walk-throughs. Whatever you’re doing, it has to be really on point.”
Seely added one of the first places coaching could show up is on special teams, where “the biggest plays always came in the first three weeks of the season, and the last three weeks of the season. For the first three weeks, you had a lot of rookies. At the end of the year, you had a lot of injuries and other guys in there, and they just didn’t know. This year, you’re not getting any benefit of practice games. I think it will be a really good test of what your coaching staff is.”
Not all coaches are lamenting the lack of preseason games, though. Coach Kyle Shanahan, of the San Francisco 49ers, said recently on Chris Simms’ “Unbuttoned” podcast that travel days around games — and the games themselves — took away valuable opportunities for his team to practice.
He theorized having those days instead to practice creates a situation in which “we might be able to make it up. … We might be able to get the same amount of work in.”
Similar to Shanahan, Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid struck a more optimistic tone.
“The way the league and the union have put this together, we’re going to end up with enough padded practices, where you can go full speed,” Reid said. “The shell and padded-shirt practices, we should be fine for timing purposes; this is a throwing league right now. As important as the run game is, that timing in the throw game becomes important, because it takes hours. So we have an opportunity to do that with the rules in place.”
Added New York Jets coach Adam Gase: “Once we get going in practice, we’ll have to see how everything falls into place. It’s not easy to predict how guys will handle getting thrown in the fire, but that’s football. I went through it in 2011 when we had the lockout year. We never had any meeting time. Basically, a deal got done and we got thrown on the field the next day. Football players figure out a way to get it done. They figure out a way to adjust the situation that’s at hand. That’s what I expect our guys to be able to do.”
Count Belichick in the same category.
“Ever since the beginning of college football, that’s the way it’s been. You go to camp for three weeks, then you start the season. There are no preseason games, and you evaluate your team and you get ready to play,” Belichick said. “So I don’t think it’s anything that’s revolutionary here. We just haven’t done it that way in the National Football League for a while.”
It might not be revolutionary, but conducting OTA’s virtually and playing no preseason games is certainly unprecedented in the NFL, which played six preseason games before dropping to four in 1978 when the regular-season schedule expanded from 14 games to 16.
Surely, most coaches still see value in the preseason games, especially when it comes to deciding a close competition for a roster spot. All have experience over the years with players who might do well on the practice field but struggle in the transition to games, or vice versa.
Without preseason games, coaches will enter the 2020 regular season with a blind spot in that area, in addition to having less of a feel for the rest of the league’s players.
“It lines up similarly to how we had it in college … no preseason games, you just know what you’ve got and not what anybody else has,” Kingsbury said. “So there is definitely some anxiety heading into that first week.”