Sam Ross Jr.

Sam Ross Jr.

The time has come to throw a penalty flag on the NFL’s preseason. Call the infraction unnecessary games.

No less an authority than league commissioner Roger Goodell, who got his job in 2006, has been beating this drum for shortening the preseason at least since 2012.

Goodell says preseason games aren’t necessarily the “highest quality.” No kidding.

How can they be the highest quality when, increasingly, teams play their best players as little as possible, or not at all in them?

The New York Giants have played two preseason games thus far, both without using running back Saquon Barkley, the former Penn State star and current Giants offensive linchpin. They’re limiting his wear and tear and Barkley said he doesn’t really need the preseason work to be ready when the games count.

That is the sentiment from a growing number of star players.

The argument for preseason games used to be about giving veteran players a chance to round into form and young players a chance to earn spots on the team and build cohesion with the other players.

In this era of voluntary and mandatory mini camps and off-season workouts, not to mention teams practicing together to spice up training camps, there is ample opportunity beyond preseason games for coaches to gauge talent and for teams to bond.

But don’t tell that to Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who has led his team to the spectacularly meaningless position of being the kings of the preseason.

When the Ravens knocked off the Green Bay Packers last Thursday, it was Baltimore’s 15th consecutive preseason win. 

That is the longest such stretch for an NFL team in the past quarter century.

After win No. 14, Harbaugh had said, “We like to win. The haters out there are going to have their own little snide comments. I think winning is better than losing.”

At the risk of being labeled snide, despite all that winning in the preseason, the Ravens are a mere 27-21 in games that counted the past three regular seasons. They made the postseason just once – last season – and the stay was brief, a loss in the wild-card round to San Diego.

Last time I checked, no trophies are awarded for unbeaten preseasons.

Preseason results can be deceiving because teams enter these games with differing agendas and winning isn’t necessarily topping the list. It’s common to see one team dominate early in games, when more regulars are playing, only to lose in the mishmash of reserves playing that follows.

In a regular-season game, those stars aren’t coming out, often even if the game seemingly is decided. New England coach Bill Belichick is well-known for keeping his stars on the field late in one-sided games.

Unlike the Ravens, Belichick’s Patriots teams have done pretty well for themselves during recent regular seasons and playoffs. The Patriots made the Super Bowl following the 2017 season, despite a 1-3 preseason record.

Harbaugh’s Ravens went 4-0 that preseason. You make the call on which is the greater success story.

The preseason used to be even longer. From 1970 through 1977, NFL teams played 14 regular-season games and six preseason games. 

In 1978 the regular season expanded to 16 games and, for most teams, the preseason was reduced to four games.

So, if Goodell thinks reducing the preseason is a good idea, why isn’t it happening? The answer is money.

For owners to give up one or more preseason games, they’d want the regular season lengthened to make up for the lost revenue. But players, for reasons of safety and career longevity, don’t want longer regular seasons.

The stalemate has meant we continue to have too many sloppy, meaningless preseason NFL games in which the main goal has become avoiding having star players get hurt.

But at least Harbaugh’s Ravens get to keep building on their record of being masters of games that don’t count.

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