There are simply no solutions.
In the span of five years, the NFL has reduced the number of training camp practices and suffocated policies regarding how practices can be conducted, all in the name of player safety. A stigma took hold where coaches have ditched the fan-favorite Oklahoma drill, reasoning that the injury risk wasn't worth it. Cincinnati became one of the last teams to kill off the Oklahoma drill, conducting their final session in front of millions of satisfied viewers on HBO's Hard Knocks in 2013. Yet, even the Bengals have deep-sixed the drill, blaming rainy conditions in ‘14 and electing to use the more team-focused half-line drill in ‘15 (which had zero publicity and was conducted away from fans).
Despite all of these protective measures, players will get hurt. Michael Johnson suffered an MCL sprain during practice earlier this month during a standard blocking drill. Tyler Eifert landed hard on his back, giving fans a scare, which turned out to be nothing. Quarterback AJ McCarron suffered a rib injury, Pat Sims has missed time with a thigh injury. During Friday's game against the New York Giants, Cedric Peerman twisted his knee when his foot caught the turf; Rex Burkhead's helmet bounced on the back of his lineman; both players left with conservative discomfort, returning to practice three days later. Darqueze Dennard, who suffered a groin injury during practice last week, left the preseason opener in the second quarter, further tweaking the injury and hasn't practiced since.
Yet as the league readjusts their punishing training regiment and practice schedule, obviously due to legitimate lawsuit concerns regarding concussions, the NFL still applies an archaic mindset with the preseason and it had devastating results on Sunday.
Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson suffered a knee injury during Sunday's game against Pittsburgh. Initial reports are calling it a torn ACL, pending MRI results. Nelson, who collapsed after pivoting his foot on a routine eight-yard pass, suffered the injury without any contact. Steelers starting center Maurkice Pouncey will require surgery after suffering a broken ankle during the same game, and will miss eight weeks of the regular season; he's an obvious candidate on the team's short-term Injured Reserve list.
One has to wonder, what did the Packers and Steelers gain by playing their starters in such a meaningless game? Neither team is executing difficult plays; they're hiding their best plays for more meaningful contests. Pittsburgh isn't going to show their hand while the Cincinnati Bengals coaching staff watches from their hotel room in Tampa Bay. Starters receive the bulk of a team's repetitions during practice, so work isn't as important in preseason games.
If dissolving the preseason entirely isn't an option, the league should reduce the number of games to two, allowing fringe players to compete for a roster spot. Four preseason games is overkill -- the Steelers and Vikings are playing five this year -- and this doesn't factor the misguided belief that the NFL should hold 18 regular season games, which is contradictory to the league's "keep players safe" mission statement. There's nothing wrong with a two-game preseason and a 16-game regular season.
"Let me quickly eviscerate two myths about the preseason," writes Mike Freeman with the Bleacher Report. "First, you need the preseason so that guys on the roster, looking for a shot, get their chance. The problem is, teams know who these players are. All teams know. They have tape on them. Scouting reports. If he's a rookie, they have college tape. This isn't 1940. There are things called computers and DVRs.
"The second myth is that players need the preseason to get used to the violence," adds Freeman. "Again, false. Players scrimmage, and those scrimmages get violent as hell. Players get plenty of hitting."
Players already defined as starters, like Andy Dalton, Geno Atkins, A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Jeremy Hill, Carlos Dunlap and Dre Kirkpatrick, should never play a down during the preseason; this should be true for every team's superstars. There's a significant financial risk to losing these players, which directly impacts your regular season. Injuries do happen. At least make them count. Why would you accept a mission-critical player being lost in vein with a ridiculous "it's football" counterpoint when it could be avoided? Allow Hill to preserve his legs, and Green to avoid high-impact zones during quick slants or his high-risk jumps to grab overthrown passes down the sidelines.
It's understood that the league holds four preseason games, not necessarily because it's what coaches want; though they'll continue using every opportunity to analyze and experiment during exhibitions. Preseason games bring additional revenue, charging fans with regular season rates in tickets and concessions.
Vikings starting offensive tackle Phil Loadholt suffered a torn Achilles last Saturday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and will miss the entire season.
"Coaches and NFL traditionalists will defend the value of preseason games because that's what coaches and NFL traditionalists do," writes Jim Souhan with the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "They will speak to the value of game action in sharpening veterans and testing rookies and fringe players. But that's not the reason preseason games exist. They exist because they make money."
One 2013 Forbes study found "NFL teams make $160 million in revenue from a sold-out pre-season", though a sellout is rare. Ticket resellers are eventually forced into unloading preseason tickets at discount. According to the Tiqiq ticket company, Bengals tickets went for a 70 percent discount in 2013. New England slashed their preseason tickets by half prior to last year.
"The four-game preseason has long been a joke, but each year the star players are restricted even further from participating," writes Tim Cowlishaw with the Dallas Morning News, who proposes more scrimmages during joint practices, like the Bengals and Giants earlier this week. Cowlishaw adds that "preseason games are part of the season-ticket package, meaning fans pay 20 percent of their season-ticket money in most cities for games that don't count played by guys bound for arena leagues."
Despite the overwhelming ferociousness against the preseason, these games will continue. Fans just want football back (though you could argue it's sloppy anyway) some hardcore fans want to see lower-tiered players fighting for a spot, many of whom will be shipped to the practice squad or the unemployment lines anyway.
On second thought, there are simple solutions. It just takes someone willing to bend tradition for modern applications.