The NFL and the NFLPA have been in negotiations to protect players and team personnel as they ramp up training camps across the league. One of the significant points of these negotiations has been the number of preseason games the teams will play this Summer.
Generally, they play four games in the preseason. However, in 2020 that number has already been reduced to two by the NFL, and per Adam Schefter might be eliminated.
NFL offered the NFLPA today to play zero preseason games this summer, per source.
With COVID-19 looming over North American sports, the NFLPA has been lobbying for no preseason games to minimize any risk of transmission of the COVID-19 virus. They hope that the first time they travel for a game is week one of the regular season.
By and large, the preseason doesn’t mean a whole lot, but several aspects will be heavily impacted because there won’t be any preseason games in 2020.
1. Coaching Communication
The Dallas Cowboys largely overhauled their coaching staff from the Jason Garrett regime of 2019. The only mainstays are Offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore and Quarterbacks Coach Doug Nussmeier. Nussmeier is taking over a new role after coaching tight ends under Garrett since 2018.
Everything else is different. New wide receivers coach. New offensive line coach. And the list goes on and on.
While they’ve been able to communicate virtually during the altered offseason, ironing out gameday communication is a huge aspect of the preseason experience. You can attempt to simulate the calls and substitution packages in practices and intrasquad scrimmages, but nothing beats having to try and make those calls with a game clock, an opponent, and crowd noise coming from all sides.
The one thing this coaching staff has going for it is that it’s very experienced. Head Coach Mike McCarthy has 13 years of head coaching experience. Before that, he coached as an offensive coordinator or position coach for another 13 years. That wealth of experience will help his game management. However, they’ll have a communication structure to work out when they line up against the Los Angeles Rams in week one of the NFL season.
The offense should be in good shape, getting the calls from Kellen Moore to Dak Prescott and disseminated to the offense after a successful 2019 built a rapport. The defensive side of the ball isn’t so fortunate.
Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan and Middle Linebacker, and the likely wearer of the green dot on defense, Jaylon Smith will have to spend time getting used to their on-field communication.
The players will need to adjust quickly to the way their position coaches communicate substitution packages and do so without the benefit of preseason games and the all-important dress rehearsal.
That third preseason game has traditionally been the most important for the guys who will be on the 53-man roster out of training camp. It’s the time for the team that will go into week one to work out any communication or substitution struggles they might face when the regular season starts.
Without the benefit of preseason games, they’ll have to do as much simulation as they can in limited practice time.
2. Opposition Repetition
Training camp repetitions are vitally important to getting ready for the season. Often, however, those repetitions can grow stale against your teammates, because you learn their tendencies and weaknesses and can play to those in practice. The defense can pick up on offensive play calls and checks at the line of scrimmage, and the offense can attack specific areas of weakness on the defense.
That’s why so many teams have opted for joint practices over the years. The chance to work specific situations against a team you don’t know can be just as valuable as any preseason rep. With COVID-19 putting the kibosh on joint practices and now the preseason games, those crucial repetitions against an unknown opponent are not an option.
The challenge for the coaching staff is to find a way to keep each rep fresh throughout the training camp. Generally, practice repetitions are limited anyway, so making sure the team gets in quality work every single practice will be huge.
3. Youth and Fringe Players Less Opportunity
With no preseason games, there will be less opportunity for the younger players on the training camp roster to make an impression. Some players haven’t played a down in the NFL that will be competing with veterans at important spots in the starting lineup; center, left guard, and right cornerback. Those younger, inexperienced players will have to make the most of every practice rep if they hope to earn a starting job out of training camp.
For the guys on the fringe of the roster, the coaching staff and scouting department will have less film to go on. If a veteran and a rookie are close in their evaluations, the team will likely go with the guy that has the most experience.
In an offseason where the teams haven’t had an opportunity to work with these players in rookie minicamp, OTAs, and minicamps, they don’t have a lot to work with as the teams begin training camp in the next week.
Those guys that are end of the roster or practice squad guys are the ones who stand to benefit the most from preseason games. Now they’re the ones negatively impacted the most by not having preseason games.
That doesn’t rule out opportunities for younger players to earn roster spots or positions in the starting lineup. However, it does make their track to playing time much more difficult. Coaches want players on the field that they can count on. Without the benefit of those additional preseason game repetitions, coaches will have less to go on when they make decisions on playing time. Guys that were on the bubble heading into camp likely had their bubble burst by a veteran hungry for a job.
Veterans no what to expect from an NFL training camp. They know how to maximize every rep on the practice field and how to use those opportunities to grow their game and make an impact. Rookies have yet to sit inside a meeting room in person or attend a practice. And while some, like CeeDee Lamb, will make an impact regardless, players like Tyler Biadasz or Bradlee Anae need those preseason reps on film to make a case for playing time.
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While football is ramping up and that’s typical this time of the year, there will be nothing ordinary about this season. Teams won’t be as sharp at the beginning of the season. Rosters won’t have as much youth. Players will be on the practice squad that you didn’t anticipate. Things are just going to be different.
For teams like the Dallas Cowboys who are breaking in a new coaching staff, they have a lot more work to accomplish than those with coaching continuity heading into 2020. The defense will be learning a new scheme and philosophy. They will attempt to put what they’ve learned in the virtual classroom on the field in a shorter amount of time and without the benefit of facing an unfamiliar opponent.