Sitting stars in preseason raises age-old readiness question
ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Ezekiel Elliott never lobbied publicly for a few snaps once the Dallas Cowboys decided to sit their healthy star running back for the entire preseason.
Frank Gore actually got two plays with the Miami Dolphins, and the 35-year-old going into his 14th season wanted more. Coach Adam Gase wouldn’t have it.
“I heard about it during the game that he wasn’t real happy,” Gase said after the third preseason game, when starters usually get their most action before sitting in the finale. “When we went three-and-out, I’m kind of going, ‘You got a catch, so does this count? He has a carry and a catch. Can I get him out of the game?’”
Sending able-bodied starters into the regular season without a game-speed snap isn’t all that unusual, nor is the inevitable hand-wringing and second-guessing every time an important player gets injured in an exhibition.
It’s all part of the age-old balance of getting players ready for that first big hit or full-speed burst while protecting important pieces of Super Bowl hopes. The regular season starts Thursday night with Atlanta visiting defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia.
“It’s kind of hard to say you shouldn’t or should play in them,” said Cowboys receiver Cole Beasley, who nursed a sore groin most of training camp but got 13 snaps in Dallas’ third preseason game. “You can get hurt in a regular-season game just like those. It’s just football, man. It happens.”
Several teams rested at least one offensive starter throughout the preseason. The Los Angeles Rams didn’t play 10 of their 11, the exception being right guard Jamon Brown because he will be suspended for the first two games and needed extra work.
While Sean McVay preferred to get third-year quarterback Jared Goff some playing time, he didn’t want it to be behind backup offensive linemen because it was more important to the coach to rest the veteran starters up front.
Plus, McVay is counting on familiarity with 10 returning starters, including running back Todd Gurley , from a unit that led the Rams to the playoffs last season.
“I’ve been around a lot of players that have gone through preseasons where they haven’t played and seemed like they were ready to go,” McVay said. “I think the reason that we felt like this was best was because of the continuity that we did have, specific to the offense.”
Coaches who sit healthy stars in the preseason will say they believe their practice tempo gets them ready. Cowboys right guard Zack Martin, a Pro Bowler in each of his first four seasons, would slightly disagree, even after a preseason scare with a knee injury in the second game against Cincinnati that ended up not being serious.
“You need those reps,” Martin said. “You’re in training camp. Obviously those are good reps, but you’re going against the same guys, the same defense. Just the fact that you get to see new guys, new moves, new defenses. That’s a big part of it. I think that’s huge.”
Receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman sat the entire preseason for the Falcons despite being healthy.
Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown didn’t play while nursing a minor injury and Odell Beckham Jr. sat out for the New York Giants coming off a broken left ankle that sidelined him most of last season.
It appeared Tennessee was protecting Delanie Walker before revealing that the 34-year-old tight end sustained an undisclosed injury during joint practices with Tampa Bay and was unavailable for the final three exhibitions.
“I am very confident that I’ll be ready,” said Walker, a three-time Pro Bowler. “I have been playing 13 seasons, and I’ve played in a lot of preseason games. So when you only get like five plays in a preseason game, I don’t know if that helps you or not.”
Stephen Jones, executive vice president of personnel for the Cowboys and owner/general manager Jerry Jones’ son, doesn’t think it helps. Even without a name being mentioned, he knew the question was specifically about Elliott, his third-year back who led the NFL in rushing as a rookie in 2016.
“I’m sure every back is different,” Jones said. “I’ve read quotes from other backs in the league that they don’t think they need it. I don’t know what five snaps does in a preseason game.”
Jones, however, disagrees with his dad on shortening the preseason. NFL football operations chief Troy Vincent says teams are polled every year on that idea, and are usually split about down the middle. Stephen Jones believes it’s important for younger players to get a chance to show what they can do in games.
“I know the fans may not love it as much,” he said. “I understand that, but there are a group of fans out there who really enjoy watching these young players develop.”
Vincent, a defensive back for 15 seasons, remembers playing in multiple exhibitions — and sometimes skipping the preseason entirely.
“To get into football shape — true football shape — the only way to do that is on the field, and the best way is in game action,” Vincent said. “I really feel for the coaches and putting together a roster because they have to make sure the players are getting in the work to be evaluated.”
But there are plenty of players who don’t need to be evaluated. Elliott is obviously among them after leading the league in yards rushing per game for the second straight year while missing six games on a suspension over domestic violence allegations.
“This is the most comfortable I have felt in this offense,” Elliott said at halftime of the preseason finale in Houston. “I believe I have had a great camp and enough reps that I’m ready to play.”
AP Pro Football Writers Teresa M. Walker and Barry Wilner and Sports Writers Greg Beacham, Will Graves, and Steven Wine contributed to this report.