Bears coach Matt Nagy made his name as a creative play-caller. But his call not to play anyone of consequence this preseason might have the most lasting effect on the NFL.
As Nagy and a growing number of other coaches continue to sit their starters in preseason games, the NFL is becoming increasingly likely to re-evaluate that portion of the schedule when the collective-bargaining agreement expires after next season.
Coaches used to give their starters a token number of preseason snaps and hold their breath. Last year, Nagy took the unusual step of sitting all his starters in the third full week of preseason games, the typical dress rehearsal for the regular season. This year, he has skipped the charade entirely.
Fourteen healthy Bears regulars have yet to play in a preseason game, and that’s not counting quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who handed the ball off three times in the opener, or guard Kyle Long, who was left home for fighting but would have sat out Friday nonetheless. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, linebacker Roquan Smith and defensive linemen Eddie Goldman and Bilal Nichols played five downs in the opener and not at all Friday.
It’s fair to wonder whether NFL owners would be willing to concede two August home-gate receipts when they sit down with the NFL Players Association. But even they have to admit the silly season is getting ridiculous.
‘‘As an NFLPA rep, I really do think you’re going to see this league transitioning into what we’re sort of doing, what a lot of other teams are doing: joint practices [against other teams] and not playing in the game,’’ backup quarterback Chase Daniel said after the Bears’ 32-13 loss Friday to the Giants at MetLife Stadium. ‘‘Because there are so many injuries.’’
Daniel listed the latest casualties: Jets inside linebacker Avery Williamson, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee a preseason game Thursday, and Eagles quarterbacks Nate Sudfeld and Cody Kessler, who suffered a broken wrist and a concussion, respectively, in back-to-back preseason contests.
‘‘Let’s be honest: That’s the reason they’re holding [players] out, right?’’ Daniel said. ‘‘We lost [outside linebacker Leonard Floyd] and [tight end] Adam Shaheen last year in the preseason, and they were out for a few weeks. Shaheen, really, his ankle was never the same. That’s a costly starter at tight end for us.’’
The top third of the Bears’ roster is too valuable to risk losing in a game that doesn’t matter. The bottom third is mostly camp fodder. Stuck in between are 30 or so players who have to prove something to land on the 53-man roster. But they’re replaceable.
The Bears’ preseason games, then, are more akin to minor-league games.
‘‘We have 90 guys, [and] only 53 make the squad,’’ said Daniel, who starred in preseason games as an undrafted rookie with the Redskins in 2009. ‘‘Those 37 other guys, they’re needing a chance to play.
‘‘The AAF, the XFL — these things never last. We really don’t have a farm system. So I think the preseason, it’s necessary — at least some — so you can get the guys some film and get these guys some snaps.’’
Kyle Long suspended, Mitch Trubisky scratched, kicker battle flips again. Plenty to talk about with Patrick Finley & Jason Lieser, live from MetLife Stadium after the Bears lose to the Giants, 32-13. https://t.co/SUsEVX7RWV— Sun-Times Sports (@suntimes_sports) August 17, 2019
Daniel said he agrees with Nagy’s strategy.
‘‘Obviously, the pros of it are, [if] you’re keeping your guys out, you’re keeping them healthy,’’ Daniel said. “But the cons? Listen, I was an undrafted free agent. I really made a lot of hay in the preseason. There’s a lot of guys here that want these games, that want this opportunity to put it on film. Because you’re not only trying out for the Bears, you’re trying out for 31 other teams.
‘‘I see both sides of it. It will definitely be some interesting discussions in the next few years.’’
After the first preseason game, someone asked cornerback Prince Amukamara how many preseason games were too many.
‘‘One,’’ he said, to laughter. ‘‘It depends on the person. Rookies, for sure. You need to get in there and put your toe in the water. You need to feel it.’’
But do you, really? On Wednesday, Nagy changed the Bears’ morning practice to a night scrimmage. The same Bears starters who sat out Friday saw 60 live snaps with ‘‘thud’’ contact instead of tackling. The coaching staff controlled every situation.
The risks were more controlled than in a preseason game, but it wasn’t 100 percent safe. Guard Cody Whitehair hurt his finger, but the Bears think he’ll return soon. By contrast, the Bears’ most notable preseason ding was swing tackle Rashaad Coward leaving with an elbow injury Friday.
Long, of course, swung a helmet at teammate Jalen Dalton during the scrimmage. Despite apologizing to his teammates, he was kept home from the game against the Giants.
Fighting and punting on preseason games might be related, though.
‘‘I think you see the altercations in practice because guys are literally sick and tired of hitting the same people over and over,’’ Daniel said. ‘‘They want to hit somebody else, and Coach won’t let them play. Their juices are flowing. They’re competitive, too.’’
Only 2 1/2 weeks until the regular-season opener against the Packers.
‘‘I need to do what’s best for us,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘Sept. 5 is an important day for us.’’