If the original version of the NFL’s 2020 schedule was still in play, the Giants would be a few days away from their first preseason game. They were supposed to face the Jets at MetLife Stadium this Thursday night, giving the rookies their first taste of professional football, letting the young veterans trot out their new offense and defense, and allowing every player sick and tired of the grinds of training camp to finally hit someone in a jersey of another color.
The preseason games were scrubbed from the calendar because of COVID-19 restrictions and to make way for the new training camp structure that each team in the league is following. It allows for an acclimation period, which we are in now, followed by some on-field work that will take place this week, and then actual practices that can begin Aug. 17.
Most won’t miss watching those exhibition tilts with their watered-down strategies and bottom-of-the-roster talent pools. And there are plenty of Giants players who probably wouldn’t have even suited up for those contests if they were played this summer. Saquon Barkley has had a fine career and he has appeared in just one preseason game in his life. But while they are mainly just throat clearing before the regular season, preseason games did serve a purpose for players and coaches alike, and now teams have to find ways to replicate those benefits as best they can.
“I think it will be a little bit of a change and a challenge,” defensive lineman Leonard Williams said this week regarding the new format. “I think the team is doing a great job of creating that competitive environment to see everybody’s best. We’re making do with what we have. The coronavirus is affecting everybody in the world and we’re not excluded from that. We are doing the best we can.”
Rookies and those on the roster bubble likely will lose the most without preseason games to show their abilities in a live situation. But it also could be a hurdle for, say, a second-year quarterback learning a new offensive system. Someone like Daniel Jones. The first time he gets to run a play from new coordinator Jason Garrett’s playbook against an opponent will be on Sept. 14 when the Giants open up against the Steelers.
Jones wasn’t feeling too sorry for himself over the missed opportunities of August.
“All we can do is prepare as well as we can in the time we have,” Jones said. “I think it’s on me to learn the system as quick as I can and as effectively as I can. Use the time we have, use the practices we have to do that, and come in prepared and ready to go.”
While this is a new wrinkle for the NFL, which has had preseason games regularly scheduled since the 1960s, there are more than a few Giants coaches for whom the revised training camp pace is familiar.
“When you talk to a lot of the coaches on the staff, you have to reach back to your previous experience [because] this is almost more like a college training camp,” coach Joe Judge said. “You’re not worried about getting ready for a preseason game. You’re not concerned about having a plan in place for a specific opponent. You really have more time to work on your own installs and what you can address within your own team at your own progression. The number of coaches on our staff, myself included, who have been through college football, we have thought back as to how you can have this progression. For us, there are waves to training camp.”
Because of the absence of team-on-team competitions this preseason, Judge said he will find ways to mimic game situations as best he can. That will serve two purposes. The first is to figure out which of the 80 players on the current roster will make the regular season team.
“We have to do a good job of structuring training camp in that we’re able to evaluate the players first and make sure we make the right decisions while we form this roster,” he said. “You can’t do that without playing full speed football . . . whether it’s a situation of intrasquad scrimmaging or intrasquad games.”
The other is to bring that regular-season roster up to regular-season speed.
“When we get the opportunity to get on the field, we have to really ramp it up,” he said of upcoming practices. “It’s not ramping it up to say here’s the green light, let’s step on the gas. You have to get the players’ bodies ready for competition. Each part of the season gets faster. Preseason is not as fast as the regular season, regular season is not as fast as the playoffs. Every round you go in the playoffs, it gets faster and more intense . . . We have to do our part as coaches in ramping up the practices in training camp so when we get to the regular season, our guys are physically prepared to play safely on the field.”
Depending on how this season progresses, preseason games may never come back. With momentum toward a 17-game regular season and expanded playoffs, It’s very unlikely we’ll ever go back to having four of them for each team each year. And if there is hardly an effect on the quality of the sport in September, they may well disappear for good.
Of course, not every aspect of football needs to be rehashed and rehearsed in a preseason game in order to show up in September.
“This will be my fifth year in the league, and for me I should know how to tackle and do all these things,” linebacker Blake Martinez said. “For practice, it’s just working on those fundamentals. Whether it’s the fundamentals of the right feet, the right stance, the right approach to tackle and the perfect drops and things like that. Once you get on the football field, you know how to tackle and how to go play.”
This year, that knowledge will be more valuable than ever.