Feeling the Pain of the Preseason

Big-time injuries have plagued this year's training camp. More and more, the risk of getting hurt impacts how business is getting done in the NFL

Andrew Brandt
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When asked to name something about working for an NFL team that people would be surprised to learn, I often describe the amount of time front offices spend on injury and medical issues. And that amount is increasing every year.

The injury factor in the NFL influences management decisions—and game outcomes—as much as any other dynamic in the game.  The best laid schemes, plans, depth charts, scouting metrics, etc. can be altered in a heartbeat based on injuries not only to star players, but to backups and even fringe players. At this time of year I often remember a line from Packers general manager Ted Thompson, who was animated (for him) on this subject: “Injuries are the bane of our existence.”

Early exits

The early part of training camp commonly brings sprains and strains of hamstrings, glutes, groins, calves, ankles, etc.  The immediate ramp-up from vacation to the intensity of practice is a recipe for muscle pulls, frustrating coaches who, limited by CBA restrictions, crave on-field time with the players.

This year, there have been a rash of more serious season-ending injuries to players such as Jeremy Maclin, Dennis Pitta, Danario Alexander, Joe Morgan, Dan Koppen and Bryan Bulaga—all before a preseason game was even played.

Jeremy Maclin was one of the first players to suffer a season-ending injury in this year's training camp.
Jeremy Maclin was one of the first players to suffer a season-ending injury in this year’s training camp. (Michael Perez/AP)

Theories to explain this early cluster of injuries abound, although all are speculative. Some suggest the extended time away for players in the offseason due to the new CBA is a factor, although there was no similar data after the locked-out offseason of 2011 or with the same schedule as this year in 2012.

No team is immune from injury, but there are ways to attempt to lessen the odds: fewer “live” full-contact practices, avoiding players with injury histories, more joint-specific training, etc.

Speaking of training, strength and conditioning staffs have started to emphasize core work and injury-preventive measures more in recent years. The more focus on injury prevention, the better, in my opinion. This is an area ripe for positive change.

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The business of injuries

The NFL salary cap is unforgiving, including not only active players but also those on practice squad, PUP, injured reserve, etc. Although the active roster limit is 53, some teams end up carrying over 70 players on their cap by late in the season due to injury issues.

Many players have “split” contracts that designate a lower salary if the player is placed on injured reserve. Some splits only trigger in the preseason; others activate any time of year if the player moves off the active roster. Some splits are for the minimum split number ($288,000 for rookies this year); others for a higher amount between the minimum split and the “up” salary ($405,000 for rookies this year). The variances are based on leverage, or lack thereof. In some contracts, negotiations over the split can be more involved than those over salary and bonus.

In managing the cap, I tried to enter training camp with $10 million of room, budgeting for in-season player extensions and expected injury issues. Better to be conservative in planning for injuries that may never happen than be unprepared if and when they occur.

Availability and durability: added value

On the other side of the injury equation are players who rarely, if ever, miss time. Availability and durability are qualities that, in my experience, cannot be overestimated. I regularly factored them into contract decision-making.

Players can be extremely talented and/or have exceptional work ethic, but they need to be available. During my nine years in Green Bay, Brett Favre provided us great value beyond his performance on the field. We never worried about the availability of our best player at the game’s most important position.

The down side to Brett’s uniqueness was that he made it virtually impossible to sign free agent backup quarterbacks. I constantly heard from agents and players of potential veteran backups—before drafting Aaron Rodgers—with comments such as “I want at least a chance to play!”

Players can be extremely talented and/or have exceptional work ethic, but they need to be available.

“Get him out of here!”

Far removed from the headlines of training camp are the tiny agate-type transactions of injury settlements: negotiated payouts for players not projected in the team’s future plans.

As I wrote last week, many players on training camp rosters have little to no chance of making their teams. When these players are injured, their value to the team—taking reps in practice and preseason games so regular players can rest—is greatly diminished. They then become extraneous parts, diverting resources of the training and conditioning staff away from frontline players. Thus, with players like this, I would often hear the instruction in the headline above: “Get him out of here!”

Teams cannot release injured players; doing so subjects them to an injury grievance. Thus, an injury settlement precludes the player from filing a grievance in exchange for payment for the projected time of healing and rehabilitation (elsewhere).

These settlements—I negotiated dozens of them—are an awkward dance, with the team projecting one healing period and the agent, often through a second opinion, projecting another (longer) one. Common ground is usually reached, although some do not and end up in front of an arbitrator months later.

I tried to handle injury settlements as humanely as possible, but it’s a merciless ritual: the team wants the player to go away and pays what is required to make that happen.

As the interminable march to the regular season continues, many injured players will be left in the wake of the preseason. In a variation on my mantra on the business of football: so many (injured) players, so few jobs.

And now, your questions …

What is the goal of preseason games from a team perspective?

Coming out healthy. In watching these games, I would say only two words: “Get up!” I would focus my binoculars on any player who stayed down on the ground longer than usual, following them to the bench to watch their interaction with the trainer and/or doctor.

There is little good that can come out of these games, but a lot of bad. Injuries are a necessary evil—just see above—but they always feel worse when they happen in a meaningless preseason game.

I understand that coaches do evaluate players and that some players flash in these games, but the truth is that most decisions on players are not influenced by preseason games.

What about scouting preseason games; is there any valuable information teams get?

Yes, preseason football presents players auditioning for future waiver claims and signings. In the press box at any preseason game are about a dozen scouts from around the NFL, clad in their team-issued gear, checking out players who may be released soon. In fact, our scouts were never at our preseason games; they were evaluating rosters at other games.

When the average fan has long tuned out of these games, due to unrecognizable names and faces filling out their favorite team’s jerseys, the work of the team scouts truly begins. This is where they determine if other bottom-of-the-roster players are better than their own bottom-of-the-roster players. Scouts report back to their general manager with things such as “I saw a safety who’s better than our fourth safety,” meaning we would look for that player’s name on the waiver wire.

In other words, the latter parts of preseason games are more about players playing for the rest of the league, as their employment relationship with their existing teams is likely to soon end.

What are some interesting preseason memories you have?

Most involve the weather. I remember playing against the Chiefs in the Hall of Fame game, a game mercifully called in the third quarter due to lightning and torrential rain in Canton that night.

I remember playing in Cleveland and, soon after checking into our hotel the night before the game, the power went out. I remember watching 90 players sit in the lobby by candlelight, and I negotiated a contract extension for one of our players on a hotel napkin lit by flashlight.

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Then there was a home game against the Titans one year in our last preseason game. The skies opened up in the second half and lightning caused the referees to clear the field and delay the game.

The starting players had long since exited; the game was full of fringe players, most of whom were to be released the next day. Fans were filing out the doors. After talking with Titans general manager Floyd Reese and getting our coaches’ blessings, we called the league office to see if we could end the game at that point before players were needlessly injured.

Word came back to us that Commissioner Tagliabue, reached at a dinner engagement, ordered the game finished, no matter the hour. The game then re-started sometime after midnight in front of a smattering of diehard (and well-lubricated) Packer fans. And yes, a couple players suffered injuries requiring injury settlements when released the next day.

I will never forget having to complete that meaningless game after midnight on a slippery field. Like the Hall of Fame game, it should have been called.

The NFL says it is studying how to improve the preseason. Thoughts?

The NFL has been trying to improve the preseason, or fan interest in it, for some time. However, absent a mandate for teams to play their starters for a certain amount in these games—a directive that would be a nonstarter with teams—there is little to be done.

The NFL will continue to try to find a way to “fix” preseason football. Speaking of which …

Is the NFL still talking about two preseason games and 18 regular season games?

The 18-game season discussion hit a nerve with players, fans and media as a hypocritical money grab for a league that champions the importance of player safety. The NFL faced outrage over the issue in the most recent CBA negotiations, so it wisely backed off … for now.

My sense is that the 18-2 concept, as the NFL refers to it, will resurface at some point. It has two huge benefits for the NFL: (1) additional revenue estimated at $500 million per season, and (2) solving the “preseason problem” by cutting it in half.

If and when the NFL raises the issue again, it would be wise to first quietly meet with player leaders about the benefits: increased revenues that positively impact the salary cap, extra bye weeks, the same 20-game total structured as 18-2 instead of 16-4, etc. Although dormant for the time being, I believe reports of the death of the 18-game season have been greatly exaggerated.


This article deals mostly with finances.  I've often wondered who owns the medical information--the player or the team??  Does the player go to his own Doc and get exams needed for diagnosis and treatment or must they go to the team Doc??  As a fan, the main criticism I have is the lack of accurate information available about injuries, especially as applies to medical imaging exams done or not done.  As a player, the accuracy of the medical evaluation and the extent of injury becomes crucial.... 


A bit off topic here too but i have to say:Well spoken redcabotiger. I'm a man living in Sweden and i'm always opposing to the sexifying of women in sports or elsewhere in everyday life. I have three kids, two boys and a daughter, a I want all of them to feel they have equal rights of expressing themselves in whatever way they choose, in football, soccer, arts, punk rock, finance or whatever. In Sweden where the European championship in female soccer went off last month. The players continue to struggle against (male) "fans" who harass them and offends them sexually via social media. This is a same. A start for SI would be to stop immediately with the swim suit crap.

redcabotiger like.author.displayName 1 Like

Ummm... way off topic here--but. As a fanatical football fan who happens to be a woman, I couldn't help but notice that the umpire in the top photo looked suspiciously female. 

Given that ESPN has focused extensively on Title IX over the past month--including the rehashing of the "Patriot Missile" story and how far women have come since then... I would love to hear about what the NFL is (apparently quietly) doing to promote women in the game. Respected Amy Trask, hated what happened to her, and would love to know about other women who are forging their way through a traditionally male game.

This of course is as opposed to the insidious attempts to sexify the NFL for women (pink jerseys, jeans with rhinestones... commercials that discuss the fact that you don't own us....are you serious? I would rather be caught dead at a cat fight....). So stupid. You should realize that it's no longer 1955, and there are legitimate women fans who appreciate the game for what it is and are not interested in looking cute or what the halftime spread is going to include.


@redcabotiger  Women like you are few and far between. what does the sam, mike and will refer to in football terms ? . What the NFL needs to get rid of is the pink breast cancer awareness crap !!!!  They don't even do anything for prostate cancer wtf lol


So what is wrong with the umpire in said picture being female? I


There is not enough writing like this, taking me into the mind of the front-office. How would I know that your scouts go to other preseason games? How one has to negotiate a settlement to cut a non-injured player? That is so much more than 1 and 10 he rushed right for 4 yards. 

I love the NFL, and last year, via satellite, I watched 58% of all televised NFL football, a total of about 240 hours over the season (DVR!), and ZERO pre-season games. I will never buy season tickets, only single-game, due to the stupid full-price preseason games. Preseason is hurting the NFL in my book.

That said, no way I don't watch games 17 and 18 in the 18-2 model. I certainly don't need them, but the junkie is not going to turn down another fix. The quality of football in week 16 is typically still excellent, and extra bye weeks and roster spots should help maintain the level we expect. I think it would be a great success with fans even if we don't demand it.

As a player, it is more than just money, so I would have no problems with them preferring 16-2 (which would mean less salary) instead of 16-4 even if that cost them versus the 18-2 (but a raise less than 2/16). 16-2 with 2 bye weeks adds one extra MNF, SNF, TNF national broadcast to offset some lost preseason revenue. With the recent CBA particularly, they negotiated that less-is-more when it comes to pads practices, two-a-days, fewer days for OTAs, and just reducing the beating overall. 


There is no fan demand for an 18-game regular season.  The NFL is far and away one of the best things about life, but the 16-game regular season is perfection.  Just enough to keep me wanting more, but not so much that I have to watch 3rd-string quarterbacks try to take their teams through the playoffs every year due to injuries.

The NFL should take a lesson from the distance it is putting between itself and the other major sports (MLB, NBA, NHL).  The NFL consistently pulls farther and farther ahead in popularity because of the scarcity its 16-game season creates.  The NFL needs to realize that keeping the supply of games locked down to 16 games works in its benefit.  Expanding to 18 games will dilute the product on the field, and will negatively alter its growth trajectory.


@JMillerNC I think you missed one of author's major points here - they would still be playing the same number of games in total.  Although you may not watch all 4 pre-season games, they happen and players get hurt.  Personally, I'd rather see 2 more meaningful games and 2 less pre-season games for all of the reasons Mr. Brandt describes.  Furthermore, you are not qualified to speak for all NFL fans, just yourself.


@doctahgamz @JMillerNC  I like the fact that an NFL team can only have so many bad games before it hurts your post season chances. You start the season losing three or four games your chances of getting into the post season are slim. Having fewer games keeps the rivalries intense as well where each game counts that much more.


@doctahgamz  Couple of things:  

(1) starters would not be playing the same number of games; they play just a few plays in the first preseason game, at most a quarter in the second, and typically just a half of the next two preseason games.  Playing an 18 game schedule would subject starters to as much as 18 full games, not 16 + varying parts of 4.  

(2) I run two FFB leagues with 23 other NFL fans besides myself in them - I don't know a single member of either of these leagues who wants an 18 game regular season schedule.  On top of that I socialize with another dozen diehard NFL fans, who also do not want anything to do with an 18 game regular season schedule.  Furthermore, TheMMQB's own Peter King has reported on finding few NFL fans longing for more regular season games.  And Dan Patrick has cited many times that fans of his show don't want an 18 game regular season.  With all of that evidence in hand, I think I'm completely qualified to "speak for all NFL fans", as you put it.  I never intended to, but the evidence is overwhelming that the vast majority of NFL fans DO NOT WANT AN 18 GAME REGULAR SEASON.

'Nuff said.


@doctahgamz I think it's hilarious that you took my original post and my reply to you so seriously.  You have made me laugh.  +1 Internet for you.


@JMillerNC @doctahgamz Your points here, although perhaps valid to some, are known as an opinions - regardless of the number of Fantasy Football leagues you run.  And i get it, you like things the way they are.  But don't be afraid to open your mind to the possibility that not everyone agrees with you and that they aren't necessarily "wrong" because they don't.  Furthermore, I really don't think there is a single person that is qualified to speak for all NFL fans.  There are quite a few of us...


Fantastic .... every morning I arise from my slumber to one great article after the next.