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Eisenberg: There's No Simple Answer To Preseason Conundrum


For the record, I'm right there with Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh on the subject of the NFL preseason.

Asked last Saturday to identify how many games he would like it to contain, Harbaugh said, "If I had my druthers, I'd go none."

Hear, hear. If the preseason disappeared from the face of the earth, like a plane over the Bermuda Triangle, I wouldn't shed a tear.

Players get injured, fans pay regular-season prices, scores don't count, and as Harbaugh hinted Saturday, coaches learn nothing they couldn't also glean from a few more practices.

Other than that, it's great.

But now that I've said that, let me also state for the record that coming out against the preseason is a columnist's version of T-ball, i.e., about as easy as it gets. I mean, who comes out FOR it?

A greater challenge is figuring out how to change the situation. Less meaningless football is a worthwhile goal, but every potential solution features a major sticking point.

Just do away with it? Um, the owners would have something to say about that. They profit from the four-game preseason schedule by adding preseason tickets to their regular-season packages.

It's a longstanding reality that frustrates some fans, but the NFL can do it because it received antitrust exemptions after its 1970 merger with the AFL, essentially enabling its teams to control their markets.

That means the preseason isn't just going to vanish, like a plane over the Bermuda Triangle. But in the process of arguing for that, Harbaugh said he hoped the league and the players' union could agree to "do something that's good for everybody … add more games that are meaningful."

He's surely referring to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's campaign to grow the regular season from 16 to 18 games, a move that probably would involve turning two preseason games into regular-season contests. That's a solution that has been mentioned a lot.

It would be a much better deal for the fans, obviously, giving them more "real" games for the same prices they're already paying. But I don't think it would be a great deal for the players.

As the NFL season has grown from 12 to 14 to 16 games over the past half-century, players have grown and games have become fiercer. As Harbaugh said, "These are big, fast, strong men running around out there and it's not 25 years ago." A 16-game season is already almost too much for their bodies, I think. Eighteen games would border on abuse.

If I were king of the football world, I would go with a two-game preseason leading into a 16-game regular season.

The regular season doesn't need to change, and as much as I don't care for meaningless summertime games, it does seem they serve some purpose. Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs admitted Saturday that he needed some contact before the regular season starts. Joe Flacco, coming off knee surgery, also said he's better off now that he's played a few series.

The Ravens have learned some things in these first three preseason games. Excelling in practice is one thing, but Ronnie Stanley, Alex Lewis and Kenneth Dixon have also delivered under the lights. That's valuable information.

A four-game preseason seems like overkill, though, so why not just cut the number in half?

Well, because season ticket packages would then consist of nine games rather 10, potentially creating all sorts of issues.

See what I mean? There's no simple answer.

The preseason was started decades ago partly as a marketing tool. Teams barnstormed to non-league cities, hoping to spread the word about pro football. But times have changed in that and numerous other ways.

A shrinking of the preseason would be welcomed, and the doorway leading to change opens wider when a coach as respected as Harbaugh takes a stand. But given the money on the table and the complex issues involved, I'm not counting on anything changing anytime soon.

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