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Sean McVay Ruined the Preseason—Now It’s Time to Ax It Entirely

On Thursday night, numerous NFL teams sat their starters, while those who didn’t suffered a number of injuries. We don’t know whether the Rams’ league-leading health is replicable, but it seems clear that other teams are trying to steal L.A.’s formula by sitting out the preseason.

NFL: Preseason-Baltimore Ravens at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Last preseason, Sean McVay tried something novel: He sat his entire starting offense for all four preseason games. The unprecedented move was met with skepticism: Would the Los Angeles Rams regret not knocking off the rust prior to the real action? Would quarterback Jared Goff be out of sync with his receivers? But McVay had already determined that preseason football just wasn’t worth the injury risk.

The Rams, of course, proved that the concerns about missing the preseason were overblown: Los Angeles won its first eight games, finished 13-3, and made the Super Bowl. They were also among the healthiest squads in the league. Per Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost stat, the Rams were the fourth-healthiest team. They finished first in 2017 and first in 2016—whatever medical team they have in Los Angeles is worth its weight in health insurance premiums. McVay is adopting the same strategy of resting his starters this preseason.

Other NFL teams, it would appear, have taken note. Thursday night marked the beginning of Week 3 of the NFL preseason, which is generally when teams play their starters the most, often well into the third quarter. But Thursday’s action saw far more backups than starters, and many of the first-stringers who did make it onto the field left early.

In Cincinnati, quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Eli Manning were each pulled before the end of the first quarter (not that it’s a bad thing we got to see more Daniel Jones). In Philadelphia, Carson Wentz and Lamar Jackson never saw the field. In Miami, the Jaguars benched Nick Foles at the very beginning of the second quarter, limiting the entirety of his preseason time with a new team to just 10 pass attempts. And in Winnipeg, where the Raiders and Packers played, virtually everyone sat—Green Bay benched 33 players and Oakland threw out mostly scrubs.

To be fair to those two squads, sitting their starters didn’t appear to be part of a grander strategy to rest players for the preseason. Aaron Rodgers even came out wearing pads before the start of the game. The Raiders and Packers chose to play it safe only after turf troubles in the end zones (which are designed for the field goal posts used in Canadian football) caused the crew to shorten the field to 80 yards. Rather than risk something going wrong, both teams made their stars ride the pine.

But even that is a remarkable step: It means that Rodgers, who sat in weeks 1 and 2, will get no in-game action within Matt LaFleur’s new offense before the start of the season, assuming he sits the fourth preseason game, as is typical. It also means Derek Carr will get no chance to build a connection with Antonio Brown, who was also seen in pads (and, crucially, a helmet). While both teams seemingly intended to play their starters, you wonder whether they would have been so quick to pull their guys if the Rams hadn’t just proved that the preseason really isn’t very important.

Not every team, of course, sat their starters, with the first-string players for the Dolphins, Redskins, Falcons, Patriots, and Panthers all receiving snaps until at least midway through the second quarter. But a handful of those teams paid the price: Washington tight end Jordan Reed suffered a concussion, as did Jags receiver D.J. Chark. And Carolina quarterback Cam Newton left his team’s game against the Patriots after injuring his foot:

Even prior to that play, Newton had been sacked twice in the game. The former MVP came into this NFL season with injury concerns after a shoulder malady limited his effectiveness last season. It’s not yet clear whether his foot injury is serious, but it is clear that he never should have been on the field in the first place.

Even the Packers, after resting nearly everyone, couldn’t avoid the injury bug completely: First-round defensive lineman Rashan Gary was carted off with an unspecified injury.

The NFL has toyed with the idea of shortening the preseason for years now. After the Rams’ preseason absence last year and the latest batch of games Thursday night, there’s never been a better time to cut the charade in half.