The NFL preseason is not important—until, of course, something important happens. But even then, the significance of a particular happenstance is subjective. Let me give you an example: James Conner rushed for 98 yards on 20 carries in a 17-13 win over the Falcons in his preseason debut. This was a very solid outing, and one that the Steelers will take from their presumptive no. 2 back.
It should be noted, however, that Conner’s first 11 carries yielded 38 rushing yards. His final nine carries, meanwhile, yielded 60 yards. Generally speaking, the level of talent on the field during preseason games tends to decrease as the game drags on, so Conner’s strong finish could be attributed to him playing against subpar competition. One could also make the case, though, that Conner himself was playing alongside a meager supporting cast.
Hence, there is no binary from which to judge Conner’s performance; it was whatever you wanted it to be. Some things are not this complex. Some things are what they are. And Odell Beckham Jr.’s injury scare on Monday night was objectively significant.
Let’s deconstruct this:
Right away, it becomes pretty evident that this isn’t gonna end well. Eli Manning, who is already in midseason form, delivered the ball just a tad higher than he probably needed to, forcing Beckham Jr. to leave his feet. At this point, Browns safety Briean Boddy-Calhoun (I had to look this up, but I’m pretty sure the Browns’ official site is trolling me because there is no way that this is a real person), goes low to make a tackle, making certain to operate within legal guidelines. As Beckham Jr. secures the ball, his back facing the secondary, his foot hits the ground at the exact same moment that Boddy-Calhoun makes contact with his leg. The fact that Beckham Jr. had juuuuust landed ultimately prevented him from fully establishing himself, allowing his left leg to slide out from under him with relative ease. He was also lucky that Boddy-Calhoun’s initial contact occurred juuuuust above his thigh. In other words, if Beckham Jr. had landed just a millisecond sooner or if Boddy-Calhoun had hit Beckham Jr. an inch or two lower, Beckham Jr. probably would’ve blown out his knee. This was a well-deserved fortuitous turn of events for Beckham Jr., who spent Monday afternoon staring at a solar eclipse. (It is apparent that he may not have actually been staring at the sun, but some sort of artificial light source, as a joke.) (I don’t understand the joke.) (Beckham Jr. seems like the kind of guy who would make fun of someone who spilled water on their pants by peeing in his own).
Odell Beckham Jr. is near the very top of the shortlist of the NFL’s most valuable non-quarterbacks—and arguably the only receiver in the NFL who is even in the same conversation as Antonio Brown and Julio Jones in the positional hierarchy. He is the face of the New York Giants, if not the entire NFL. At the very least, he is easily the league’s most marketable player, and hopes to follow by also being its highest paid. As such, I think it is safe to say that our view of the preseason would have shifted considerably had Beckham Jr.’s season ended in Cleveland in mid-August.
The purpose of this little exercise is not to advocate the end of preseason football—this will never, ever happen, anyway, because the NFL and its owners enjoy money, fans generally enjoy watching it, and fringe players rely on it to lock-down roster spots—but to decry its pitfalls.
Indispensable, franchise cornerstones like Beckham Jr., Brown, and Jones probably do not need the preseason. The benefits that a few series of action would confer to players of this magnitude would surely be minimal. The aforementioned All-Pros have spent the duration of their professional careers playing alongside the same quarterbacks, so it isn’t as if taking in the sights for four weeks while the special teamers duke it out would somehow subvert this continuity. As a fan of the Steelers, my favorite part of the preseason is watching Antonio Brown not play in the preseason. The same is true for Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell, the latter of whom granted my wish by neglecting to sign his franchise tender, thereby facilitating a de facto holdout.
Injuries are an unavoidable side effect of professional football, but any attempts to placate injury risk should be eagerly embraced. If this involves locking star players in plastic bubbles, switching departure times without telling them, or lighting their equipment on fire, then I’m all for it.