Practice Makes Perfect

Were you pleasantly surprised with the points your defense put up in fantasy this week? If you did, you’re not alone. It wasn’t hard to miss the high number of turnovers in week 1 of the NFL season. The 1 o’clock games alone saw 17 interceptions and 10 fumbles. Is some of this due to lack of talent in the NFL, especially at the quarterback position? (24 of those 27 turnovers were at the hands of a QB) You bet. But its symptomatic of a bigger issue in the NFL. (The NFL has a ‘bigger issue’ its failing to deal with? I’m shocked!)

With the increased medical awareness of the effects of concussions, as well as other general injury concerns, the NFL has put an ‘enhanced focus’ on player safety in the last few years. One of the remedies they’ve experimented with is to put tight restrictions on when and how teams are allowed to practice. On the NFLPA’s website, the guidelines section of offseason practice regulations contains the word or some form of the word ‘limit’ 16 times. Gone are two-a-day practices, Oklahoma-type drills, and even practicing in certain weather conditions. Instead, off-season workouts are limited to 4 per week, non-contact, voluntary run-throughs where “intensity and tempo of drills should be at a level conducive to learning”. That is a direct quote from nflpa.com. Mind you, these restrictions only exist at the NFL level. College Football still has its share of 2-a-days, and you can find Pop-Warner teams running Oklahomas here and there.

Now I don’t want to come off sounding like player health isn’t important. It is. But at a certain point you still need to be able to play football. What we saw yesterday was a lot of miscommunication, bad routes, weak ball protection, really on the whole players not looking ready for a full speed, full contact, regular season NFL game. You can run route trees in training camp as much as you want, but it will never properly simulate how a corner jamming a receiver at the line or hand-fighting down field will throw off the timing of a pattern. Coaches can smack their backs with tackling dummies, tennis rackets, whatever, for hours on end, but it doesn’t replicate a defender coming in actively to strip the ball. Just watch this interception from the highest-paid quarterback in NFL history. Not a great play by the defense, not even necessarily that bad of a throw. Just a broken route due to a miscommunication that has the defense going back the other way for 6.

So why not iron all this out in the preseason? As we saw this year, the players who are going to matter week 1 rarely play extended minutes, if at all, in August. Teams are not willing to risk their star players in meaningless games. This has been common practice for some time, in part because teams knew they could replicate a game environment and intensity during the controlled setting of a practice, limiting the chance for injury while still giving the top unit game-type reps. Obviously, that is no longer an option with the rules and regulations governing practices from the latest CBA.

Where is the fix? Well one may already be in motion. The NFL has discussed in recent years eliminating one or two pre-season games. If the NFL were to do this, they could counter by allowing teams to up the intensity in practices, so while players get the same level of game type reps, more of those reps come in the controlled environment of a practice field. Another place to look could be joint practices, when two teams face off in workouts during the pre-season. They have increased in popularity in recent years, although teams are often (rightly) hesitant to show their full playbook to an opponent is a practice, especially if its an opponent they will face that season, like in the case of the Patriots and Texans this year. And of course, there is always the precautions of developing safer helmets and pads and working to improve injury identification and treatment, something the NFL already claims to be deeply invested in.

When the next NFL CBA negotiations take place in 2020, there are a lot of pressing issues that will come before practice schedules. Between guaranteed contracts, marijuana use, and Article 46, the speculation is this will be the nastiest negotiating to date, and some are already putting the 2021 NFL season in doubt. That being said, it does seem like there is a level of recognition around the league that the quality of play has decreased. It is in the best interested of both sides that fans are getting the best show possible, so while this issue was apparent in week 1 of the 2017 season, hopefully it won’t be in our faces for long. And then your fantasy defense can go back to being an afterthought.

Written By: Alex Barth

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