Tim Benz: NFL preseason long overdue for change. Some Steelers agree. | TribLIVE.com
Tim Benz, Columnist

Tim Benz: NFL preseason long overdue for change. Some Steelers agree.

Tim Benz
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger reacts with Pittsburgh Steelers offensive guard Ramon Foster (73) in the second half against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018, in Cincinnati.
AP Photo
Pittsburgh Steelers offensive guard Ramon Foster (73) plays in an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

I’ve long been an advocate of ditching the NFL’s preseason. Or at least cutting it back to two games.

The risk associated with core roster players participating is massive, even if their reps are limited.

By extension, their snaps are usually so few that the reward of playing a couple of series in one or two of the games is hardly worthwhile.

September football is often ragged anyway. So it doesn’t appear starters net much from their infrequent participation in the first place.

Furthermore, the players who do play the most—fringe performers battling for the last few roster spots—often don’t carry over whatever preseason experience they gleaned because they are either on the bench, inactive, or “back home bagging groceries.”

Coaches and general managers prefer the current four-game model because they want a longer time to evaluate talent and tinker with their playbooks. Ownership likes it because they get to open the gates twice per season at home while paying their players training-camp, per-diem wages.

Also, they charge the fans regular price—or at least close—for tickets and concessions.

This week, however, Roger Goodell renewed the debate. The NFL commissioner stated, “I’m not sure, talking with coaches, that four preseason games are necessary any more to get ready for a season to evaluate players, develop players.”

He’s right. Between organized team activities, minicamps, training camps, and two preseason games, that should be enough.

Especially since most starters barely play in Game 1 or Game 4 anyway. Let them get their continued minimal reps from the other two games. Meanwhile, coaches and front office executives should do a better job self-evaluating and scanning talent on other teams via a smaller sample size.

That’s always been my opinion.

Steelers players, though, were torn on the topic Tuesday.

“You’ve got 90 players trying to fight for 53 spots,” said third-year cornerback Brian Allen. “With two games, I honestly don’t think there are enough reps to go around for those guys trying to fight for a spot.”

Allen, by his own admission, is a player who could benefit from, and be cursed by, the four-game slate. As a backup defensive back on his first contract, he could further cement his roster spot and earn more playing time with a good preseason. Or someone else at his position could do so and take his gig.

Even some of the established veterans within the locker room waffled on a stance.

“When (the final score) doesn’t count, it kind of sucks,” nine-year veteran Cameron Heyward said. “But some guys are coming off injuries. How do they bounce back? But some guys you want to keep off the field. So, with fewer games, how are you going to evaluate talent—or your young guys—without throwing them into the fire for your first game?”

Offensive lineman Ramon Foster is entering his 10th season. Speaking strictly as a player, and not as the team’s NFL Players Association rep, the guard adamantly supports the idea of keeping four preseason games.

“I’m not opposed to four games, at all,” Foster said. “I’m a guy who benefited from it. I think when you have only two games, it puts the stress on guys too quickly to prepare. There’s a lot that goes into taking away those two games.”

Foster is referencing the fact that he was an undrafted free agent with the Steelers and had four extended opportunities to show he belonged in the NFL before the Steelers decided to keep him in 2009.

And that’s where this conversation always seems to return for the players. Obscure rookies that flashed against lesser competition from other teams in the preseason are going to endorse a full preseason. Players like Foster, Isaac Redman, and Antonio Brown are always going to view this debate through the lens of their eventual success.

Maybe they never would’ve starred in the NFL if it weren’t for those chances to bust out under the bright lights as opposed to at mundane practices.

Conversely, there are Steelers such as David DeCastro, Sean Spence, and Shaun Suisham. All three had their careers slowed, hampered, or ended by knee injuries in the preseason.

So there’s a yin and yang to all of this.

Except for money.

There will be no give back on the money. The owners aren’t going to ditch home gates, network television, and local broadcast rights on two games without something to supplement or exceed the cost.

Of course, this where the talk of expanding the regular season to 18 games comes into play.

That’s an idea Foster dislikes.

“Taking away two (in the preseason) and adding two in the regular season, you are going to get trashy football in the first two games.”

Some would argue that’s the case already. And I don’t like the concept of an 18-game schedule either.

But if you make me choose, I’d rather see 19 weeks that count, than two to four weeks that don’t.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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