- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2003

Joe Gibbs once said he wouldn’t mind if there were 16 preseason games and only four regular-season games. He was kidding … I think. Gibbs was such a preparation freak — dotting every X, crossing every O — that you can’t be totally sure.

Joe never felt like he had enough time to get his team ready for battle. And plenty of other coaches, no doubt, share his view. This is the mentality you’re fighting when you start talking about shortening the exhibition season, trimming the number of games from four (and occasionally five) to, say, two. Training camp is their classroom, coaches will tell you, and preseason games, though hazardous, are important in determining who’s who and what’s what. Besides, there’s only so much you can learn about a player from a 7-on-7 passing scrimmage.

It’s a shame that Michael Vick and Chad Pennington — not to mention the Redskins’ Brandon Noble — have been struck down before the real games start, but the pile of bodies is going to have to be a lot higher than that before coaches say, “Yeah, let’s cut the preseason schedule in half.”

Frankly, I thought the NFL would go to 18 regular-season games — and two preseason ones — when it expanded to 32 teams a few years ago. To me, it made perfect sense. You could play the three clubs in your division twice, the other 12 clubs in your conference once and do away with interconference games (thereby putting some of the mystery back in the Super Bowl, as in the days of the American Football League). The league also would have two more weeks of meaningful games to sell the networks and, as an added bonus, figured to reduce the number of senseless injuries like Vick’s and Pennington’s.

The owners decided not to go that route, though, partly because of another mentality at work here, one that’s almost as old as the NFL itself. Preseason games, you see, are one of the last vestiges of the Old System, that carefree time when owners were masters and players were subjects. The owners, as you might imagine, kinda liked the Old System. There was no free agency, no players’ rights, no curbs whatsoever on the owners’ power. If they wanted their teams to play six (and sometimes seven) games for no pay before they played 12 games with pay, there wasn’t much the players could do about it.

Check out this account of the Redskins’ 1939 preseason from the 1940 Spalding NFL Guide: “The Redskins covered more than 7,500 miles on a trip that took them to Spokane, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston — longest single athletic expedition ever undertaken within the borders of the United States. At Spokane [Wash.], home town of Coach Ray Flaherty, where they trained for 17 days, they drew 10,000 fans to an intra-squad game, the first pro football exhibition ever staged in the Pacific Northwest by National League players. At San Francisco they defeated the Pacific Coast All-Stars and at Los Angeles downed the Bulldogs, and following a coast-to-coast jaunt conquered the Eastern College All-Stars before 28,000 in Boston.”

For their exertions, owner George Preston Marshall generously provided the Redskins with room and board. (And the room, all too often, was a Pullman car on a train.)

In his autobiography, “Footsteps of a Giant,” Hall of Famer Emlen Tunnell reminisces about the team traveling in “10 big [automobiles]” during the 1948 preseason, “… with our playing gear piled on top in luggage racks. It reminded me of … ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ Our opponents usually were the local ‘all-stars,’ a pickup team of college and high school players in Grand Rapids, Fargo or wherever.”

This chasing after the Almighty Preseason Buck got a little ridiculous at times. In 1959, Vince Lombardi’s first year in Green Bay, the Packers played consecutive exhibition games in Portland, Ore., and Bangor, Maine. (Why the Pack didn’t play the second game in Portland, Maine, if only for the symmetry, remains a mystery.)

The NFL Players Association, it tends to be forgotten, was formed in response to the Preseason Pay Issue. By the ‘50s, the players were beginning to feel like they were being had — and, of course, they were. The owners would often disguise exhibition games as “benefits” — for the Hospital Fund of Santa Ana, Calif., the Denver Post Charities, the Washington-Baltimore Variety Club — but they were still lining their pockets.

In 1957, they grudgingly agreed to share some of the wealth and pay the players $50 a game, but with this proviso: If a player made the team, the money would be taken out of his salary.

The labor situation has changed greatly since then, but it’s far from perfect. Players still make chicken feed during the preseason, about $1,000 a week, while owners rake in the dough. It’s the Last Great Freebie in pro football, and the owners aren’t going to give it up easily. More stars will probably have to fall.

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