Jets tight end Dedrick Epps had never seen anything like it before.
“I can’t lie that’s rare. That’s as rare as it gets – for the first two guys on the depth chart to go down like that,” he said following his team’s 17-12 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
The event Epps was referring to was the first and second string tight ends, Dustin Keller and Josh Baker, leave the game and not return due to injuries within thirty minutes of each other. Keller leaving with a hamstring injury following a 24-yard catch to open the game and Baker after a nasty collision to his knee in the end zone.
That meant the third string — fourth, actually, considering Jeff Cumberland was not active due to a concussion — Epps had to roll with the punches.
“The next man in line has to be ready to step up and perform at or better than the guy in front him. We, as back-ups, have to practice and prepare as if we’re going to be playing the whole game. Today it just so happened to turn out that way,” he said.
For the Jets, yes. But all around the National Football League key players have been bit by the injury bug before their season can get off the ground. Michael Vick has been the most recent and perhaps the most notable player to suffer an injury in a ‘meaningless’ game. This isn’t the first time it’s happened to him either. Vincent Brown suffered a broken ankle when a Cowboys defender—whom he had just beaten for a touchdown—rolled over it in the end zone. LaMichael James hurt his ankle colliding with a teammate. Brandon Jacobs’ knee took a hard hit from the helmet of a Titans tackler.
Of course, these injuries could have occurred in practice. They’ve could’ve occurred in OTAs. Or, in the case of Terrell Suggs, it could’ve (or couldn’t have) happened on the basketball court. Football is a collision sport. And injuries are definitely a part of the sport. As Epps told Jets Insider, “We play football here, man”.
But with player salaries beginning to peak at the seven-figure mark and guaranteed money growing by the deal, is it in the league’s best interest to be risking their top products for a few plays in an exhibition game?
It’s no secret NFL fans are not fans of the NFL preseason schedule. Every year season ticket holders are forced to buy tickets to two preseason home games to receive the eight regular season home games. For what? To see their star quarterback get up-ended by some third-string scrub the wrong way and implode their Super Bowl ambitions?
Not every team has Kurt Warners or Tom Bradys waiting in the wings.
The league tried to do something about this last year when re-negotiating their collective bargaining agreement, but to no avail. They proposed the same 20-game schedule except with two preseason games and 18 regular season games (versus four preseason games and 16 regular season games). The player’s union shot that down, citing the increase in meaningful game would risk greater injury to the league’s marquee players.
“It is a violent game. The more games you have, the more injuries that are going to happen,” Jets outside linebacker Aaron Maybin said.
Discussions of the a revised 20-game schedule have stalled since the season’s start, however, Commissioner Roger Goodell expects talks to start back up after the season. They shouldn’t. Fans cringe at the sight of the the medic’s cart crossing the white lines in a preseason game. Just imagine how nauseating it’ll feel seeing a similar sight in Week 19 when it happens amidst a playoff positioning struggle.
Running back Shonn Greene is on the fence in his stance on the preseason schedule. “You want to be able to get the reps in and get the time in. But on the other hand the injury risk is there,” he said.
Of course the league is never going to rid themselves of preseason all together — the owners are far too money hungry to lose out on an opportunity to get an extra buck. There is, however, enough supporting evidence out there to warrant a face-lift of sorts that can work for all sides — the owners, the players and the fans.
This season the New England Patriots have participated in two joint practice sessions with teams that there were facing later that week in an official preseason game. The practices were open to public for free admission and drew large crowds in return. If Goodell were to replace two preseason games with two joint practice sessions, and have team’s charge reduced-rate tickets prices in exchange, it could keep the money flowing in the owner’s pockets, fans entertained and the players safe — relatively, that is.
When I proposed this idea to Maybin, he was skeptically intrigued.
“I’ve never participated in something like that before. It could be great, but it could be a ticking time bomb as well. You’re putting guys from opposing teams together and asking them to compete at 75%. Nobody wants to be shown up by opponents – especially in practice. Tempers could flare. We could also potentially be playing these teams down the road, so we don’t want to show them everything,” he said.
Tempers could flare. Maybe players like Maybin will be willing to trade tempers flaring for knees and ankles flaring.