- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2009

They have OTAs and two-a-days, voluntary sessions and weight room sweat-a-thons. And let’s not forget Quarterback School (which is destined, one of these years, to break into the U.S. News and World Report rankings of top graduate programs).

The point is simply this: If any athletes should be in the peak of condition on opening day, it’s pro football players. In the NFL, after all, it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish the offseason from the onseason. Gone are the days when guys would show up at camp with six months’ accumulation of flab. Heck, if they did, they’d lose out on their workout bonuses.

Yet watching the first weekend of games, it was hard not to notice that a number of clubs - an alarming number - just didn’t seem ready for the season to start. Sure, there are always going to be some rough edges, especially so many moving parts needing to be synchronized, but I’m not talking about just that.

I’m talking about the Bengals leading the Broncos 7-6 with less than a minute to play. I’m talking about the Patriots and Chargers flirting with disaster against division rivals (Bills, Raiders) that haven’t beaten them since 2003. I’m talking about the Panthers, the second seed in the NFC playoffs last season, stinking the house out against the Eagles - and the Dolphins, another ‘08 playoff club, not scoring until the last four minutes against the Falcons.

I’m talking, basically, about clubs still being stuck in the preseason in Week 1. And not just any clubs, either. I mean, it’s one thing when the Bengals let six passes slip through their gloves or when the Rams can’t find the end zone with a GPS device. Nobody blinks either when the Chiefs get outgained by the Ravens 501-188 or when the Lions get strafed for six touchdown passes by Drew Brees.

But when Super Bowl contenders, a bunch of them, look sluggish and/or out of sorts, it’s a whole ‘nother matter. That’s when you have to ask yourself: What on earth are these teams doing in training camp - and at all these offseason get-togethers? Have coaches become so paranoid about getting players hurt in the preseason that exhibition games have become almost worthless? Have Weeks 1 and 2 of the regular season become the New Preseason?

The day after the Redskins’ opener, London Fletcher mentioned how hard it can be to “get your wind” in the first game “because we’re not used to playing so much.” Some players, he said, are out there sucking air, “but then they get their second wind, and they’re fine.”

Of course, one of the reasons the defense was sucking air in the first half is that it couldn’t get off the field. The Giants kept converting third downs and putting together oxygen-depleting drives. But still, with all the situational substituting clubs do nowadays, don’t most players have opportunities to catch their breath? Also, aren’t many starters spared from having to run up and down the field on special teams (which wasn’t the case in earlier generations)?

Yeah, but…

“There’s no way to simulate game speed on opening day on a practice field or in preseason,” Bill Belichick said after the Patriots slithered by the Bills 25-24. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to improve… and I think to some extent we did during the course of the game.”

No way to simulate game speed on opening day on a practice field or in preseason. Is anybody else taken aback by those words? According to Belichick, there’s not a single time before the regular-season bell rings that players Get After It the way they do when the games count.

So much for “full-speed” drills, I guess - and for exhibition games, too. It’s all just an elaborate ruse. Even the grunting, apparently, is more theatrical than real (kinda like women’s tennis).

I bring this up because the NFL is moving toward expanding its schedule to 17 or 18 games. That would mean doing away with one or two preseason games… and sending clubs into the regular season even less prepared than they are now. Yikes.

Fans have grown increasingly tired of exhibition games in which the starters make only token appearances - if they step on the field at all. But they might not be as thrilled as they think with these additional regular-season games, not if they’re played at the level many of last weekend’s games were.

Or to put it another way: Two extra Real Games might not be all that big a boon to the league or its devoted customers, merely the lesser of two evils.

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