- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2021

ASHBURN — Ron Rivera has a confession. Maybe it’s one an NFL coach shouldn’t be making, but here it goes: He hates the preseason. Can’t stand it, really.

He said he dislikes the “drudgery” of training camp, how stacking days upon days can start to feel stale after a while. Even facing another team, albeit in practice or an exhibition, hardly helps.

Nothing beats the real thing. 

“I can’t wait for the regular season to start,” Rivera said Monday. 

Despite his admission, Rivera still sees the value of holding the exhibition contests. For coaches like Rivera, the games are a way to evaluate the roster, to see how players perform under the lights and gauge how much improvement is needed before wins and losses actually start to matter.

And now, Rivera will finally get to watch his team go against another group Thursday when Washington takes on the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts for the team’s preseason opener. 

After a year away because of the pandemic, the preseason is back — and so too is the long-running debate about its value. With the league expanding to 17 regular-season games, teams now only have to play three exhibition games instead of four.

But that hasn’t stopped others from continuing to ask: Are these games really worth it? 

During last week’s Hall of Fame game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers, ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio and Washington team president Jason Wright got into a social media spat over the topic.

Florio tweeted: “Let’s go, glorified football practice with a bunch of guys who will be cut on August 31!” and Wright fired back by calling the remarks “disparaging,” pointing out there are plenty of players who “build lasting bonds” because of the preseason. 

Wright would know. Before his business career, Wright was a journeyman running back — making the roster of four teams as an undrafted free agent, in large part, because of those games. 

There are active players who cherish the opportunity, as well. Starting center Chase Roullier said Washington missed out on not having preseason reps last year — leading to a sloppy start when the season began.

“The beginning of the year is when you definitely feel a little bit of a difference,” Roullier said. “Last year, not having them, there were maybe a few more wrinkles and things that needed to be worked through even through the first game or two that a lot of times, those preseason games allow us to work through those.” 

Those wrinkles may have extended further beyond just a game or two. Washington started the season 1-5, in part, because of poor quarterback play. Rivera benched Dwayne Haskins after four games, but has repeatedly said since that he made a mistake not letting a full competition unfold during camp. 

Under a normal preseason, perhaps Rivera would have seen that Haskins was not up to par for the job if he had three or four preseason games to perform.

Or on the flip side of that, maybe Haskins wouldn’t have been benched as soon if he could work out kinks in games that didn’t matter to the record books. 

This year, Rivera said quarterback play will be one of the first areas he’ll use the preseason to judge.

“It’s important because it gives you an opportunity if you see something that you’re
concerned with, you do something different with somebody else,” Rivera said. 

Though Rivera said he hates the preseason, the 59-year-old hasn’t adopted the more progressive stances of coaches around the league when it comes to the preseason.

Over the past few years, newer hires have made it a point to sit starters in the preseason so as to not expose them to injury. For example, even though the Los Angeles Rams acquired Matthew Stafford in the offseason, Sean McVay said the quarterback won’t appear in the lineup until Week 1 “as long as I’m the coach.” 

Rivera didn’t detail how long his starters will play in New England, but told reporters “we’re gonna play our guys.” He added that since teams now have two full weeks from the last preseason game to the start of the regular season (compared to just one), the extra time gives Washington a chance to trot out its starters and then rest them.

By not having preseason last year, defensive tackle Tim Settle said he “definitely” noticed he felt fresher down the stretch of 2020 compared to a normal year. He felt he had a “little more juice,” he said. 

But count Settle among those who missed having the normal ramp-up to Week 1.

“It kind of bummed me not having the preseason because it gets you in shape,” Settle said. “It gets you ready. … I definitely think it’s beneficial.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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