Do Starters Need to Play in the Preseason?

Denver Broncos QB Russell Wilson
Denver Broncos QB Russell Wilson
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 2 - The Denver Broncos looked like a team whose starters could really have used some preseason snaps in their Monday night loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

The Broncos, whose starters did not take the field at all during the 2022 preseason, committed three false starts and two delay of game penalties. Russell Wilson needed to rush to get the snap off before the play clock expired a few times. The Seahawks appeared to know the snap count better than the Broncos a few other times. The Broncos offensive line didn't look synched up for much of the game. There were lots of little fit 'n' finish errors in the 17-16 loss which had little to do with that loopy late-game field goal attempt.

Yes, crowd noise was a major, obvious factor in all of the miscues. And the Seahawks were especially amped up. But perhaps getting Wilson and the starters onto the field for a few preseason series could have helped the Broncos get ready for the crowd noise and intensity of the opener? They could iron out any issues with the play-calling process. Players could get a better sense of how Wilson's audibles and cadence sound in a (somewhat) full stadium. And everyone could hit or get hit by a real opponent in a real game environment a few times. If a brief shakedown erased, say, one of Monday's goal-to-go penalties or some stray missed assignment, it could have meant the difference between upset and victory.

The Broncos weren't alone in looking a little unprepared in Week 1. Teams that benched their starters for the entire preseason went 3-8 in their openers. Two of the wins came in rested-versus-rested games: the Minnesota Vikings over the Green Bay Packers and the Los Angeles Chargers over the Las Vegas Raiders. The Baltimore Ravens mustered the other win against the Jets.

As for the losses:

  • The Dallas Cowboys failed catastrophically in a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Among a litany of mistakes, they committed four false starts, at home, only one of them by the new rookie left tackle.
  • The Cincinnati Bengals lost to the Steelers in overtime, allowing seven sacks and committing five turnovers. Granted, Joe Burrow had a preseason appendectomy, and several of the offensive linemen were coming back from injury, so the Bengals might not really have had a chance to play their starters. Whatever the cause, the Bengals line played like they had just met and hadn't been hit by a non-teammate in a long while.
  • The defending Super Bowl champion Rams were out-muscled, out-hustled, and out-everything by the Buffalo Bills, in Los Angeles.
  • The Cardinals got the same treatment from the Kansas City Chiefs, in Arizona, in a game that was 37-7 before they displayed much of a pulse.
  • The Tennessee Titans lost at home to the New York Giants, making some sloppy mistakes (five offensive line penalties plus a delay of game) and, like the Broncos, often looking a beat slower than their inferior opponent.

The sample size is tiny, the evidence anecdotal. But the three biggest upsets (Broncos, Bengals, Titans) and three of the four biggest point differentials (Chiefs-Cardinals, Bills-Rams, and Buccaneers-Cowboys, with Vikings-Packers in between) of the week all involved a team that rested its starters in the preseason. And the three lopsided wins came at the hands of teams that gave a few exhibition series to quarterbacks (Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Tom Brady, who raced back from The Masked Singer plastic surgery marriage counseling ... let's go with fishing to get some work in) who aren't exactly fighting for jobs.

Now, let me state my premise clearly here: I think resting all starters for the entirety of the preseason is detrimental to a team's performance in Week 1. There are lots of little screws that can be tightened in a dozen snaps or so, even for a veteran team. The preseason injury risk is real, and no one is minimizing that, But so is the risk of getting blown out or upset in a season opener, and that's a very serious factor to consider, particularly for a Super Bowl contender like the Packers or Rams.

When I posted the win-loss record of teams that rested their starters on Twitter on Tuesday, I got some serious smoke. Responders thought I was making some commentary about quarterbacks, or claiming that the Packers or Broncos were now doomed to go 0-17, or the ever-popular YOU DON'T CARE ABOUT INJURIES YOU FIEND. Some folks must really be invested in the Sean McVay school of preseason inactivity extremism, new as that tactic is. Wilson played in two preseason games in 2019. Aaron Rodgers was still making preseason cameos as of 2018. Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Sean McDermott, and Todd Bowles are still giving their starters a little work. There's nothing foolish about the hypothesis that a novel and unproven tactic may be backfiring.

(A quick procedural note: by "resting their starters" I mean "resting the starting quarterback and all big-name veterans for the entirety of the offseason." Obviously, some high draft picks, random guards, well-known WR3s, and other quasi-starters see preseason action in games where Jordan Love or Nathan Peterman gets the start. Josh Jacobs played in this year's Hall of Fame game, but Derek Carr, Davante Adams, Maxx Crosby, Kolton Miller, Hunter Renfrow, Chandler Jones, etc.. did not play a single snap in August, so the Raiders rested their starters by my count. There's some subjectivity at work, and I will welcome corrections, but if the starting quarterback and offense didn't play a single preseason series, that team "rested its starters.")

Resting the Starters in 2021: The Green Bay Packers Problem

In 2021, teams that rested their starters throughout the preseason were 4-5, with a head-to-head Seahawks-Colts game providing one of the wins and one of the losses. The losses included the 38-3 Saints blowout of the Packers, the 38-13 Cardinals (who played their starters last preseason) trouncing of the Titans, and a 38-3 Eagles win over the Falcons. On the flip side, the Raiders upset the Ravens, who played Lamar Jackson and their starters briefly on Monday night in Week 1 in 2021. The Rams and Chargers also won their 2021 season openers, while the Cowboys lost narrowly to the Buccaneers.

Overall, the 2021 data is inconclusive, though the Packers' season-opening losses by a combined 61-10 score over two years is certainly eye-opening. "Rested" teams are now 7-13 in openers in 2021-2022, 4-10 when head-to-head matchups are erased, with several playoff contenders (and also the Falcons) getting blown the heck out.

Resting the Starters in 2020: A Level Playing Field

There was no preseason in 2020. The overall caliber of play in Week 1 of that COVID-addled year was surprisingly high. Some folks consider this the trump card of their "preseason is meaningless" argument. That's fine: if the preseason was indeed canceled forever, it probably won't impact the quality of games much.

But the preseason has not been canceled. No team had a competitive advantage or disadvantage in 2020. That season is irrelevant to my hypothesis.

There were also virtual rookie camps and OTAs in 2020, plus strictly regulated training camps with no joint practices, Stadium Fan Fests, and so forth. Again, most of that stuff might be superfluous, given a level competitive playing field. But does anyone really think an NFL team prepared only with some practices and Zoom meetings wouldn't be at any disadvantage against a team that went through a regular practice schedule and preseason? C'mon. And if throwing sessions against air in April have a little value, 20 snaps in August in a stadium against non-teammate opposition must have a little more.

We really can't go back much further because, as previously stated, nearly everyone played in preseason dress rehearsals prior to the Rise of the McVays.

So we're left with a bunch of "hey, Week 1 is unpredictable and non-predictive" upsets and blowouts over the last two years, but also with one simple variable which could explain that very unpredictable/non-predictive issue. And that variable seems to correlate with wins and losses across a small sample. There's not enough evidence to move from "hypothesis" to "proof," but there's too much evidence to brush off.

If I were an NFL coach, I would not order Rodgers onto the field in the preseason if he did not want to go. I would not order Brady off the field if he wanted to be there. Derrick Henry would not leave his recliner. Obviously, no nicked-up player would take the preseason field. But I would want my starting offensive line to mesh for a few series. I'd want any Kirk Cousins-, Kyler Murray-, Ryan Tannehill-level or below quarterbacks synced up with their receivers, their center, and the guy in their helmet speakers. And I'd want everyone to slough off a little of the jitters and excess adrenaline in late August.

And Wilson? The guy who makes teammates close their eyes and go on visualization journeys? He sure sounds like the sort of fellow who would welcome a dress rehearsal, especially with an all-new team, plus a rookie coach who appears to need a little more seasoning himself.

Searching for Week 2 Betting Value

Whatever impact resting starters in the preseason may or may not have on Week 1 results, it's extremely unlikely that they carry over into subsequent weeks. Walkthrough expects the Packers, Bengals, Broncos, Rams, and even the Cardinals to bounce back substantially after their openers; the Titans may be who we think they are, and the Cowboys are crab bait.

But what does the house think about these teams? We'll skip Chargers-Chiefs since you might be reading this just a few hours before (or after) kickoff:

Packers (-9.5) vs. Bears: Hmm, it appears that no one is fooled by the Bears' Rumble in the Car Wash win over the 49ers, nor too concerned about the Packers against a weaker foe. This is a strong Packers line if tackles David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins are officially active. If their status is in doubt by Sunday morning, Walkthrough leans Bears to cover.

Broncos (-10) vs. Texans: We see what's going on here: both the house and public are anticipating Angry Russ/Angry Rodgers Smash games, and it's priced into the lines. The Texans are too conservative and too feisty to be double-digit dogs; they're likely to just hang in the rearview mirror and leave you with a loss or push. Skip this.

Bengals (-8) at Cowboys: The house isn't worried about Joe Burrow repeating his four-interception catastrophe and isn't feeling the Cooper Rush. But you probably know how much Walkthrough loves taking the backup quarterback in his first start. Home-field advantage and eight points is a plus. Backdoor Cover Lovers Unite! We have nothing to lose but our money and our minds!

Rams (-10.5) vs. Falcons: Marcus Mariota will score a touchdown on a quarterback draw with 0:43 left in the fourth quarter to cut the Rams lead to 27-17. You know it. I know it. And only an Arkham inmate would wager on it.

Cardinals (+6) at Raiders: Another battle of two teams who rested their preseason starters. DVOA was not impressed by the Raiders last week, despite the close final score: they committed lots of turnovers, enjoyed some fumble luck, and benefitted from the Chargers' inability to close deals. Walkthrough likes the Cardinals and is pondering that +215 moneyline to win outright.

Titans (+10) at Bills: This spread feels too wide, too soon, with too much weird juju (like last year's Titans upset) gumming up the process. Sure enough, our Football Outsiders Week 2 picks (available to FO+ subscribers) love the Bills straight-up but not to cover. Walkthrough will wait until Monday and hunt for a same-game parlay.

Ravens (-3.5) vs. Dolphins: Take the Ravens.

Vikings (+2.5) at Eagles: The Vikings aren't getting much love from the house after beating the Packers. Our FO+ picks lean Eagles, but Walkthrough doesn't want to lay points. There's some value in the Eagles straight-up at -135. There's also some value in just waiting and seeing.

Why NFL+ is a Dumpster Fire: A Walkthrough Investigation

(NFL Game Pass/NFL+ headquarters, last week.)

ED WOOD: Greetings, fellow legendary film directors! It is time for us to finalize our plans for the all-new NFL+ game replays. Or as I like to call them: Bride of the Atomic Vampire from Space!

ROGER CORMAN: Alright, even though this is a well-funded project lots of folks rely upon to both follow their favorite out-of-town teams and cover the league as journalists, I'm thinking of using replays of NFL games as a grungy, guerilla-auteur deconstruction of the dark side of American consumption culture. Jump-cuts, single takes, shaky cams, bikers, blood, boobs. The football plays should be almost ancillary to the feeling of anxiety and dislocation.

MICHAEL BAY: Explosions! Confused editing! If anyone can follow the action, we are doing something wrong!

LUIS BRUNEL: Perhaps, in the middle of a Buccaneers scoring drive, we cut to a close-up of someone slicing through a lamb's eyeball.

TOMMY WISEAU: No one wants to see a close-up of a lamb's eyeball. Everyone wants to see a close-up of my well-toned ass.

WERNER HERZOG: Nien! Zee documentarian must become part of zee documentary. So ven zee player kicks zee touchdown, ve vill show das director vatching das play and reacting!

KEVIN SMITH: Dick jokes!

JON PETERS: Giant spiders!

ED WOOD: All splenderiforous ideas, fellow filmmakers! Say there, young editor: can you insert some explosions, eyeballs, asses, dick jokes, giant spiders, and meta-commentary into these replays of NFL games?

STEREOTYPICAL ZOOMER FILM EDITOR: Nope. I am quiet quitting.

WERNER HERZOG: Quiet quitting? Vas is das?

STEREOTYPICAL ZOOMER FILM EDITOR: It's when someone does their assigned job and nothing more: no going the extra mile to impress a boss, make sure a project gets done on time, or take any real pride in their work. Anyone who keeps losing entry-level jobs and complaining about it on the Internet will tell you it's a smart and fulfilling career move.

KEVIN SMITH: I admire this m***********r's work ethic.

STEREOTYPICAL ZOOMER FILM EDITOR: I have no idea who the guy in the hockey jersey is, but never mind. Imma just slop together a bunch of football plays. Maybe skip half of the first quarter. Kickoffs and field goals are gonna go wherever I feel like splicing them. If a few Modelo commercials slip in, who cares? And if some Boomer accuses me of being lazy, I'll start asking uncomfortable questions about their own lazy habits, like why Herzog is the only director written with a silly accent.

MICHAEL BAY: I like this. It's edgy!

LUIS BRUNEL: It's indecipherable, like a Salvador Dali painting!

ED WOOD: Watching this replay makes me know even less about what happened in last week's NFL games than if I had not watched it! It practically REMOVES football knowledge from my brain! Great work, stereotypical Zoomer!

STEREOTYPICAL ZOOMER FILM EDITOR: (Already scootering home).

ED WOOD: No matter. Time to put on my best sweater and rush to Mr. Goodell's office. He's sure to love these new game replays. They'll be a boffo hit!

QUENTIN TARANTINO: (Barging into the office) Sorry I'm late fellas, but I have been brainstorming this project for days and it finally hit me: you know what's missing from these football replays?

ALL DIRECTORS AT ONCE: Don't say it!

QUENTIN TARANTINO: Feet!

Rex Ryan with a creepy grin

 

(photo courtesy of BuffaloBills.com)

Comments

48 comments, Last at 18 Sep 2022, 2:06am

1 Score

+1 for knowing Luis Bunuel

-1 for spelling his name wrong

0 for not bothering with the tilde

4 Perhaps he's related to Mark…

In reply to by JS

Perhaps he's related to Mark.

I was waiting for the Ed Wood sweater joke. A sort of old associate made this:
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0144185/ (We miss you, Ted...)

Ed would have been full of fawning shots of Mike Ditka with extensive narration. Which is not that different from the Sabols, really.

\I would totally watch an NFL Film shot and/or narrated by Werner Herzog.

10 You are stepping back. The…

You are stepping back.

The pass rush is coming.

You have finished your drop back.

The defensive end closes in.

You have not found an open receiver.

The defensive end grabs your arm.

You bring the ball in so you do not fumble.

You are tackled.

Geno Smith stands up to play another down.

2 If the ref had called…

If the ref had called holding every time an o-lineman had an opponent's neck firmly trapped in the crook of the o-lineman's arm, every game would have struggled to reach 20 total points. Last weekend sent pass blocking back 90 years.

 

5 The Mystery Science Theater…

The Mystery Science Theater 3000 would be awesome. 
 

Actually the FO guys watching a bad football game an commenting would be hilarious.
Maybe Hackett thinks they are still in Denver.
You would think breathing all game would be a clue your not. 

6 That was fun, but you got…

That was fun, but you got Roger Corman wrong, or rather, that's how some pretend auteur would talk about him.  He would just ask "how cheap can we do this?"

7 I dont care about preseason starters

If they want to play, sure. But it's clear, even getting blown out week 1, doesn't matter as the Titans and Packers both got the 1 seeds last season anyway. And the Packers did it with a week to spare...then proceeded to believe rust>rest and watched Bak and MVS get hurt in that spare week.

Then there was Baltimores injuries last preseason, that contributed to their insane season that helped keep them out of the playoffs. And of course the infamous Mcvay won the SB this past season. So...yeah it's a marathon, not a sprint. 

Then there's the question of how much actually "well...just some" so a drive? Well depends on if it's 3 plays...or 22. You pull 'em once that number hits? Or after at a more convenient time? Whatever, I need every snap of Jordan Love to evaluate anyway, and Rodgers hates the offseason. 

47 Well, Bakhtiari is injured…

Well, Bakhtiari is injured again, MVS is being more productive in KC, Rodgers hates the offseason, his receivers, and the Packer front office, so nothing has gotten better. Shades of Favre's last seasons in GB. Rodgers will figure a way to blame everyone but himself.

8 As far as the main point,…

As far as the main point, Tanier might be on to something.  The only team I remember resting everyone before this current trend was the early '90s Bills, and it worked fine for them.  Marv Levy probably knew how to get his team ready though.

I might add the Jets O-line didn't play together in the preseason... because first Becton then Duane Brown got hurt, forcing George Fant to be a yo-yo.

16 Cooper Rush, actually. …

In reply to by Aaron Brooks G…

Cooper Rush, actually.  Although I suppose Moore could be considered the 3rd string QB. But that leads to the question of who is the 2nd string OC.

12 Not en-TIRE-ly irrelevant

The hypothesis - which I am inclined towards - would suggest more sloppy mistakes in 2020 Week 1. If there weren't, that's a minor mark against, I'd suggest.

17 I doubt it, it's got so many…

I doubt it, it's got so many confounding effects. Were they injured (and how would you know?), how guaranteed were they to start, how many reps did they get outside of the preseason game, what was their expected performance, etc.

I mean, in general, I wasn't surprised by much in Week 1. I expected the Rams to struggle against the Bills thanks to Von Miller and losing Whitworth. Expected the Packers to struggle because of Bakhtiari and lack of receivers. Expected the Cowboys to struggle thanks to OL injuries. Expected the PIT/CIN game to be close because the Steelers are stupidly well run/coached and Cincinnati hasn't earned the benefit of the doubt yet (they have a little). Expected the Titans to struggle because of losing Brown (and relying on running back performance is never a safe bet).

So I kinda don't get it - none of those beliefs are really Outside The Box or anything. They were all huge preseason storylines. The only real surprise to me was Seattle/Denver and it wasn't that large a surprise: it more moved the needle on my opinion of Pete Carroll than anything else. I've never known what to think of Carroll because Carroll/Wilson are so tied.

23 True. Injury data would be…

True. Injury data would be esp hard to merge.  It would probably only be testable for guys who don't play in the preseason vs some. I guess you would expect guys who didn't play to improve after their second game and less effect for guys who did. But yeah, probably would be to difficult to test due to a lack of baseline really. 

24 I think injury data's…

I think injury data's practically impossible, since there's an obvious bias: if the team is worried about injuries they'll be more likely to keep certain players out. So in some sense, the teams you see play starters in preseason just naturally are less concerned about depth, and teams that are less concerned about depth are more likely to play well in the opener.

I think the biggest argument you could probably make is with the Cardinals, and by default the explanation for why the Cardinals struggled is "they're the Cardinals." Sorry, Arizona fans, long way to go to get rid of that bias.

29 Oh, if they made the…

Oh, if they made the playoffs more than twice in a row I'd be OK with starting to rethink 'em.

Yes, folks, that does imply that the Cardinals have never made the playoffs more than 2 years in a row. Ever. 

33 2008,2009(they even won the…

2008,2009(they even won the division!)  and 2014,2015.  And 1974,975, but they were in St. Louis then and the name made sense.  

Of course that's the same number of times as the Houston Texas in about 3x as long....

18 Probably week one just doesn…

Probably week one just doesn't matter enough to take the presesason risk, especially with the 3rd wild card and 17th game.

22 RIP Jean-Luc Godard, he…

RIP Jean-Luc Godard, he would have created something similar to that zoomer kid's edit, although for much different reasons.

27 To be clear, "quiet quitting…

To be clear, "quiet quitting" is not quitting at all. The name is complete horseshit.

If a job wants you to do extra work, they can fucking pay you for it.

28 Resting starters argument

As far as I can tell the argument for resting starters is not only are they healthier at the start of the year, but it translates throughout the season to being healthier overall.  With the teams who rested starters identified for the last couple seasons, it should be possible to test correlation of preseason/early season injuries for teams who rested vs those who didn't, and correlation of overall AGL for the season for teams who rested vs those who didn't.

Count me among those who think a lot of the sloppiness we saw in week 1 (Denver's D seemed to think they were playing touch football instead of tackle the first half) had to do with resting so many starters, like Tanier claims.  And I think he's on to something with the week 1 win/loss records as well.  But to be fair, the resting case isn't about week 1, it's about health both early and throughout the season, and this article doesn't show any of the evidence around if that is actually true (in which case it's a legitimate debate) or wishful thinking (in which case there shouldn't be a debate but people will anyways because of pseudo-logic and being unwilling to change positions in the face of evidence).

31 Playing a couple of series…

Playing a couple of series can't possibly have a measurable effect on season-long health. I suppose for anyone getting injured on the last couple of series of the season you could argue that if they hadn't played in preseason they might not have got injured, but it seems pretty flimsy.

44 Oh, I don't see how that…

Oh, I don't see how that could be at all. If anything, it's what New says below: the risk of getting injured in preseason vs being better prepared on Week 1. Considering how teams are prepared to pull all the stops to win (see what happened with Herbert on Thursday), risking a dozen preseason snaps seems perfectly reasonable. But I don't see how it's possible to study the long-term health effect of a dozen snaps, even if it were a plausible hypothesis (which I don't think it is).

39 And vice versa

What effect will it have on a game 2 weeks later, vs a completely different team?

Ultimately the penalty could be as bad as losing Mahomes for the season. The benefit is maybe winning week 1. And only week 1 because we all forget it a few days later because the residual effects only last that long because...of course. 

34 NFL+

With the continual blackouts on Sunday Ticket and the fact it doesn't carry SNF & TNF, I was looking at dumping it and going with NFL+.  Is NFL+ the dumpster fire Tanier alludes to?

37 If I understand things…

In reply to by Bill Walshs Ho…

If I understand things correctly, NFL+ only works on hand held devices (iphone, ipad, android equivalents, etc) without the ability to send to larger screen.  (Please correct me if I'm wrong on this, this is second hand info from a friend).  I use a VPN with gamepass.  I get all the games with mostly good luck.  Every once in awhile I'll have bandwidth problems or server problems but they're rare.

45 Nfl+

Ive run gamepass, or whats called NFL+ for many years. This year the editing is slightly worse (saw an extra point after the ensuing kickoff) and more replays being left in that bloats the condensed run times 5 minutes or so. Ive always run it from a desktop pc connected to my TV from a browser window, and that hasnt seemed to change from years past. 

40 If you have an Xbox, you can…

If you have an Xbox, you can watch NFL+ on your tv through the NFL app. It's not the greatest, but it does work.

 

 

42 Week 1 doesn’t matter

This article, while effectively illustrating that teams that don’t play their starters in the preseason tend to be rusty and sometimes bad in week one,  also show that the teams that have talent that don’t  play starters in preseason end up being fine over the course of the season.  It also shows that teams that win week 1 don’t necessarily make the playoffs.

The Rams and Packers make the playoffs every year with this approach , the Titans were the 1 seed last year, and the Cowboys won their division in 2021 taking this approach.

The Patriots under Belichick have used the entire month of September as a sort of preseason (every year they win the Super Bowl they seemed to get destroyed one game in September and looked generally rusty during the month before going on a tear).

The Broncos played their starters in the preseason last year and started off off 3-0, only to crash over the course of the year.

There are 17 games now and we now have 7 teams in each division going to the playoffs; do you think week one really matters that much in the scheme of things?

 

43 Yeah, agree.

There's time to question coaches but when you're questioning multiple SB winning, COTY, and a guy with the GOAT start/winning %, over one week that, uh clearly, doesn't affect anything in the long run...well, yeah they're justified not wanting their important, experienced players getting hurt in meaningless games due to mixed but slightly negative results. 

I'll continue to point to getting h reps for guys that might not play a lot is also extremely valuable in the long run too. Protect older wiser players and younger less experienced players can get caught up to NFL speed>>>>>>knocking off "rust"

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