Preseason, Schme-season. What does it accomplish anyway? Well, whether you like preseason or not, it will probably never go away unless they redo everything about the NFL. Preseason activities are built into the NFL year and, more importantly, into the requirements governed by the Collective Bargaining Agreement – the all powerful CBA. All this discussion about expanding the schedule? It can’t happen until the owners find a way to ram it into the next CBA. So, that’s another argument for another place and time. What I think is significant are the time tables set by the NFL for how the teams can handle their personnel and set up a team. Perhaps it aims to put the players and teams on an even footing. Perhaps it serves to give players an expectation of when things can happen, such as when the teams have to start getting their active roster solidified.
Training camp allows the coaching staff to start assessing how the players react when playing the game with much of their equipment on – the pads, the helmets. Mike Tomlin often calls the off season training activities “football in shorts” and seems to refuse to make decisions from it. Even with that dismissive term, he can still tell a lot about the players and that is valuable to him as a coach. It builds the picture so they can narrow what to look for and work on because time is actually more limited than you might think.
Now as the Steelers training camp begins, the REAL work starts, right? What will make this a successful preseason? What is a successful preseason anyway? Well, my definition has at least two parts: 1) There are no injuries that could have been prevented by proper strength and conditioning and 2) The roster has enough balance between veterans and youth along with positional depth to reasonably get through the first half of the season. Clear as mud, right?
The Steelers, along with many other NFL teams have lost personnel during the preseason due to injuries that have left coaches and fans wondering if strength and conditioning is an issue. I don’t know if there will ever be concrete information that can prove or disprove it. This is a brutal game played at a high speed. Building a roster that can survive an entire season can be difficult. The NFL does not allow the teams to keep much depth with a 53-man roster when you think about it. Yes, economics play a part in it. You can’t keep everyone on your initial list, but I wonder what the balance is between having enough people at a position (such as in the offensive line) that you can keep trained up and ready to go yet not have too many? Are eight linemen enough? Should it be 10, which is basically two o-lines? I think with the rate of potential injury 8 is not enough, but I’m certainly not paid to make those decisions. This is where people get paid A LOT more money than I do to make smart decisions about where the depth on the roster is needed. Yet, I have to question only having eight offensive lineman on the active roster. It’s been an issue over the last two years for the Steelers. Do you have to have three running backs on the roster to have a successful running game? Maybe. However, it didn’t seem to help last year.
I know it seems obvious to say that a preseason is necessary, but it almost seemed like the players wanted to push away some of the preseason because of the wear and tear on their bodies. They reduced the amount of time that they practice in pads because of that. If you look over the years at the collapsing of the training schedules and the rules to help protect the players, it’s no wonder that it seems like some coaching staffs are just throwing darts up on the wall to pick the players. There is only so much you can concentrate on in the month before you have to reduce the roster. Right now, the Steelers have 90 players listed on the roster and I have no idea how accurate that is. Are 90 or more guys showing up on Friday to report to camp? One is probably going to be on the Physically Unable to Perform list (PUP) and not start the season – Heath Miller. Ok, that’s one you don’t have to deal with. However, between practicing and playing 3 preseason games, the Steelers have to be ready to get to a 75 person roster on Aug 27th and four days later get to the 53-man roster. Only 8 can be signed to the practice squad. It’s an intricate dance, or at least it seems so to me.
So I ask again, what is a successful preseason? I don’t think it has to do with a win-loss record. I think it has to do with a coaching staff who can finalize a coherent game plan based on the talent they are going to keep. I really don’t think that happened last year. Yes, there are several teams out there who would give anything to have a .500 season. If the talent on the Steelers last year had been mediocre, I wouldn’t be saying this. They were better on paper than their record. You can point to a lot of close games. You can point to Roethlisberger’s injury. A successful team has a plan for the “next-man” up. Hope and prayer that your star won’t get hurt is not a plan. That’s what also comes out of a successful preseason. Can they plan for every single contingency? Probably not. But I hope they are successful at planning for more of them than I think they showed last year.