TAMPA — It’s hard to care much about preseason football, especially when there are only three games.
Very few, if any, starters play in the first two, because while you can’t win anything in the exhibition a catastrophic injury or two can set you up for a losing record when it counts.
Even a quarterback competition with the Bucs between Baker Mayfield and Kyle Trask wasn’t enough to hold anyone’s interest for more than a week.
By the second game against the Jets, Mayfield was stashed away on the sideline for safe-keeping. Two days later, he was named the starter.
What’s more, the schemes on both sides of the football are purposefully vanilla. It’s no wonder the games lack flavor.
Bucs coach Todd Bowles, whose team wraps up the preseason Saturday night against the Ravens at Raymond James Stadium, said that while NFL players generally remain in good physical condition all year, the risk of injury is too great to play the starters early in the preseason.
“Because the offseason is not mandatory anymore and you don’t have those guys in, you don’t have the ability to get them and have them in shape by the time they come (to training camp),” Bowles said Thursday. “So now, the risk of injury is greater.. ... Although they’ve been training, whether it’s track training or Pilates, it’s not football training. You’re not used to getting hit.”
In the past, Bowles said, you had to get used to conditioning in order to condition.
“Now, because of precautionary measures, every two or three days somebody has got a groin (pull). Somebody has got a hamstring (strain). Somebody has got a calf,” he said. “The past couple years, we’ve been 10 or 12 guys deep (on the injured list) going in. This is the first year where it’s not. We might have three or four. ... That’s been beneficial.”
Bowles met with trainer Bobby Slater and his staff to go over the data that suggested many of the Bucs injuries were occurring towards the end of the practice cycle.
“You’ve got to have one day off after every four days,” Bowles said. “When we got together this offseason with the strength coach and the trainers and nutritionists and everybody, we came up with the fact that the fourth day is the day where all the hamstrings and the groins and all this stuff goes.”
Bowles said the staff decided to give the players every fourth day off.
“It kept us fresher and helped us tolerate the heat a little more,” he said. “We’ve got the cool benches on the field and that kind of thing, and that worked out. We got through it pretty good.”
Before the NFL went to three preseason games two years ago, there was an industry-wide approach to protecting veterans. Generally, they wouldn’t play at all in the first game or, if so, would be limited to one series. The second preseason game was like the first.
The third preseason game was the one where starters played the entire first half and came back out for at least one series in the second half. The theory was players had to get used to cooling down at halftime and getting pumped up again.
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Bowles said his starters will be out by the third quarter Saturday against the Ravens.
“They’ll play a half or less,” he said. “They’re not going to play one series and come out, because they’ve got to get used to game tempo and how the refs are calling it, and continuity on the field is completely different than off the field.
“You don’t want to play them early (in the preseason), because they’re not in that kind of shape. And if you play them early. ... when do you look at your new guys? This year, more than any year I’ve been a part of it, we have more new guys than we know what to do with.”
The Bucs were the oldest team in the NFL the past few seasons and made a concerted effort to get younger.
“A lot of them are going to make this team, so they have to play, and you have to get them ready now so when somebody gets hurt, they can go in and play as opposed to they go in during Week 6 and you’ve got to get them ready again,” Bowles said. “That’s another reason they don’t play. It’s not for an injury thing. The first (game), probably. The second one, you want to see if they make progress in what they’re doing.
“This game is a good acclimation of it, and that’s why the joint practices are important. Because you get the speed and you get the entire scheme. Saturday, you get vanilla. I don’t need Devin (White) and Lavonte (David) out there to play Cover 3. I don’t need Mike (Evans) out there to go run, run, pass. The other guys have to get acclimated to that kind of football, and you go from there.”
Mayfield will start Saturday and play the first half. Trask should follow him into the game. As always, the Bucs will play a lot of rookies and undrafted free agents fighting for the final roster spots.
“I know everybody thinks we’re resting the starters, but we’re getting guys ready to play,” Bowles said. “We’re moving them around, we’re putting them in situations to help us during the season, not just the preseason. You stick them in the fire and let them go.”
Even Bowles needs to sharpen his skills. Co-defensive coordinator Larry Foote called the defense in the preseason opener against the Steelers, and Kacy Rodgers had the play sheet against the Jets.
‘I’m debating on calling it in this one,” Bowles said. “I need to call it. I have called some practices, and when we script them I script them, which wasn’t a whole bunch of them. But I have had my calls in practice, and I may call this one.”
To knock the rust off a little bit?
“A little bit? A lot of bit,” he said. “I thought both of them did a great job, and at some point soon maybe I could turn it over.”
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