- The Washington Times - Monday, August 23, 2004

In the last two weeks, the Redskins lost to Carolina and beat Miami. But forget the scores. As in all preseason games, the outcome is meaningless. What’s important is that both games represented major accomplishments: No key players were seriously hurt.

That did not happen in the preseason opener against Denver, when starting offensive tackle Jon Jansen was lost for the year after rupturing his Achilles’ tendon. Jansen is a steady, smart veteran and a leader, not to mention a crunching blocker, and the Redskins are worse off without him.

They aren’t alone. The Philadelphia Eagles lost running back Correll Buckhalter to a season-ending injury in a preseason game. The same thing happened to Indianapolis receiver and return man Troy Walters, and it probably won’t stop there. Once again, the annual preseason dilemma facing NFL coaches has reared up: how to balance the need to evaluate talent and provide game experience against the risk of serious, season-altering injury.

“It’s a complicated thing,” Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said.

Preseason games are useful for reasons that extend beyond gouging season-ticket holders. For young, unproven players and some veterans, these auditions are vital to win or keep a job. For regulars, the games help sharpen skills and “shake off the dust,” as Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot put it.

But mainly, they are indispensable to coaches, providing real-time opportunities to recognize strengths and address concerns, to put their teachings into practice. The impulse of most coaches — especially Gibbs, who not only is returning to the field for the first time in 12 years but is overhauling every aspect of the team — is to let ‘em play and see what they’ve got. Meanwhile, they hold their collective breath and hope (or pray) nobody gets hurt.

“What you do is what’s really best for the overall team, how long to play the guys until you feel good about it,” Gibbs said. “The thing about Jon, it was right at the beginning of the quarter. Nobody hit him or anything. So that one I don’t think we could have done anything about.

“Yes, you’re evaluating people, but you’re also trying to move the team forward, and you’re trying to see some things that the offense can do and some things that the defense can do before you start changing people. You go until you have a good feel about it.”

As much as they would love to use them, most coaches feel good when they see their starters standing on the sideline, minus helmets and pads. In his preseason opener, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick left after just three plays against Baltimore. Playing against the same Ravens a year ago, Vick, an exciting, explosive talent, suffered a broken ankle and missed most of the season. The Falcons suffered without him, and coach Dan Reeves was fired.

The New York Jets went through the same thing when quarterback Chad Pennington, another rising star, fractured his wrist last August and wound up missing September and most of October. The Jets, who made the playoffs in 2002, failed to do so in 2003.

“It always seems to be a marquee player,” Smoot said.

But as Redskins assistant head coach for offense Joe Bugel said, “This is the time they have to play. To build that chemistry. Any time you worry about injuries, then they start happening.”

After Vick and Pennington went down, talk resurfaced of reducing the preseason from four games (some teams, like the Redskins this year, play five) to two or three. The rationale is that with year-round workouts and minicamps and other offseason requirements, the NFL has become a full-time endeavor. In other words, the players already get enough work.

“Three [games] at the most will prepare you,” Smoot said.

“The thing about football is, I don’t care how much you practice, you can not simulate a game,” Redskins tight end Walter Rasby said. “It’s necessary for us to be out there, to see where we are at full speed. But I think we could still get that look if we cut down to three games.”

Some coaches favor cutting back. St. Louis’ Mike Martz said last year that a long preseason schedule “puts the league in jeopardy.” After Buckhalter went down, the TV commentators said Philadelphia coach Andy Reid told them he worries about preseason games and believes two are enough.

Kansas City Chiefs president Carl Peterson was quoted as saying, “I think from a physical standpoint, you can play less games. Obviously, from where I sit as the president of an organization where I’m responsible for all the contracts and the cap and so forth, I bite my nails all during training camp because the worst thing that can happen is to lose a starting player for the year.”

But owners, for whom preseason games constitute yet another revenue stream, do not want a reduction in those games. Such a proposal was raised at a meeting last October, then summarily dismissed, prompting Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney to say, “It was the worst idea that I’ve heard in a long time. No one is talking about it, and it just isn’t going to happen.”

Gibbs, like most coaches, prefers the status quo.

“As late as we were coming to training camp, it would be hard to shorten it,” he said. “The NFL needs to let us practice more before they shorten the number of preseason games. I also think if you shorten it, you run the risk of a lot of vets making it and not getting a chance to look at the rookies.”

Still, five preseason games might be pushing it. It’s like a major league baseball team playing the equivalent of 51 exhibition games, with a lot more contact. Even Bugel, who coaches the offensive line and who shared a good cry with Jansen after his top “Dirtbag” got hurt, has concerns.

“Four’s good,” Bugel said. “Five’s tough. Five’s too many.”

Players are taught from the first day of pee-wee football never to think about getting hurt. The rule is, if you slow down while everyone else is going full-speed, something bad will happen. But preseason injuries can feel worse than when they occur in games that count.

“The big thing in preseason is to go in there and do good and get out and not get hurt,” Rasby said. “Do decently well and not get hurt. Especially for a veteran. If you do get hurt, it’s like the worst thing that can happen, to get hurt in the preseason.”

Rasby should know. Back with the Redskins after spending a year in Detroit, he tore a knee ligament in a preseason game against Tampa Bay in 2002 and missed the first three games of the regular season.

Defensive tackle Brandon Noble knows the feeling, too. Noble’s season ended a year ago when he suffered a serious knee injury in the preseason opener against New England. No wonder he can relate to Jansen.

“A different injury, a different deal, but I can appreciate what he’s going through,” Noble said.

The risk extends beyond preseason games. Practice also can be a dangerous place. Like everybody else, the Redskins have had their share of training camp injuries, and some teams have had it worse. Philadelphia defensive end ND Kalu, Tennessee linebacker Peter Sirmon, Atlanta safety Keion Carpenter and Miami receiver David Boston are out for the season after getting hurt in practice. Others, such as Arizona’s Anquan Boldin, the top rookie pass-catcher in 2003, and Detroit linebacker Boss Bailey, are expected to miss several regular season games.

“There’s no way around it,” Redskins defensive end Regan Upshaw said. “It’s more fate. If you’re supposed to get hurt, your gonna get hurt. I got hurt in a June camp two years ago. But there’s nothing I can do about it. I have to play football. It’s my job. You’d like to go out here and patty-cake, patty-cake, but this is a physical, violent sport, and you’re gonna get hurt. That’s the way it is.”


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