Commentary

Injuries may force league to shorten preseason

In his latest mailbag, John Clayton tackles questions on Rod Coleman, Alex Smith's future in San Francisco and much more.

Originally Published: August 20, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Derek AndersonJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesConcerns about injuries to key players, such as the Browns' Derek Anderson, have coaches being extra cautious in using players during the preseason.
Do you notice the different feel of the 2008 preseason?

The San Diego Chargers, resting 14 starters and 21 players, treated a Week 2 preseason game against the St. Louis Rams like a Week 4 preseason game in which the starters sit. On Tuesday, Bill Belichick, the master of football preparation, sounded almost indifferent about the consequences of having Tom Brady possibly miss the entire preseason because of a foot injury. Peyton Manning will sit out the entire preseason, but no one in Indianapolis is panicking.

The true test of "Summer of Sit" will come this weekend when coaches handle the injuries of Tarvaris Jackson of the Minnesota Vikings, Derek Anderson of the Cleveland Browns and other key players. Week 3 is considered the dress rehearsal for the regular season, but the concerns about injuries have coaches being extra cautious in using players.

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All of this points to a possible long-term change in future preseasons. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft acknowledged over the weekend there is a growing thought in the NFL to go to a shortened preseason and a 17- or 18-game regular season. To me, that seems inevitable.

As bad a decision as it was to have 80-man rosters this summer, the way the weeks have played out has showed a lot of people that something has to give. Training camps have to be lighter by nature anyway because of injuries in a salary-cap era. The success of the offseason programs gives coaches enough time to keep players in shape and work on team drills. Except for the pads, the difference between minicamp and training camp practices is getting blurred.

Labor negotiations for a collective bargaining extension should intensify during the fall, and an expanded regular season will be on the table. More regular-season games mean more money for players and owners. More money gives both sides chips to swap when they try to work through some of the problems of the last collective bargaining extension.

If an agreement can be reached by March -- odds are against such a quick settlement -- the league could start looking at a 17-game regular season and three preseason games as early as 2010, which is the first uncapped year. If the talks go on another year, the league could target 2011 or later.

Given what we've seen this summer, the sooner the better on the shorter preseason.

Let's dive into the mailbag:

From the inbox

Q: John, I have not heard anything about Rod Coleman this offseason. After playing a handful of games last year I thought he might be ready to return from his injuries this year. Is his career finished?

Kevin in Toronto

A: He's still coming back from a lot of injuries, and he just doesn't seem to be ready yet. The Bucs looked at him early in the preseason, but there hasn't been much action. Age could certainly be a problem. He turned 32 on Aug. 16, but as Ted Washington taught everyone, defensive tackles are in demand enough to play into their late 30s. Grady Jackson didn't hear from anyone the entire offseason. He re-signed with the Falcons and was starting in a week. Coleman had quad, knee, triceps and pectoral injuries last year. He's a talent. Not only can he play the run well, but he's good against the pass. Don't be surprised if he lands someplace after the start of the regular season.

Short takes

To Mike in Chicago, there is no progress on Shaun Alexander finding a job, but he still wants to play. As far as Devin Hester, I just want to see him more on the field as a wide receiver. They paid him the money to be a starter, let him start. … To Anibal in Bakersfield, Calif., no one is overlooking the Redskins in the NFC East, but face it, the division has four playoff contenders and you are allowed to pick only one team for first place. The Redskins are good. Jason Campbell is getting better and the players love Jim Zorn. If you want to talk about overlooked, look at the Giants, who go from Super Bowl winner to wild-card prospect. … Kurk, Roddy White of the Falcons emerged as one of the best receivers who hasn't been selected to the Pro Bowl. He may be one of the few viable weapons on a bad team, but he's viable. Seeing him develop with Matt Ryan in the future should be fun. … I throw this out to Matthew in Philadelphia. The best play I saw DeSean Jackson make last week was an incompletion. Did you see how he leaped in the air and positioned his body for a wet ball that slipped through his hands? Loved it. He caught seven passes for 70 yards. He showed great route running and toughness. He's a steal in the second round but he's not ready to be a No. 1 receiver yet. … Jason, drop the idea of trading Chiefs cornerback Patrick Surtain for Brady Quinn in Cleveland. Surtain, though a good corner, is an aging corner. You don't trade a starting quarterback for a corner who might get cut by the Chiefs after the season. … Dane in Cincinnati, you raise an interesting trade possibility. For the right price, maybe the Bears should look at John Beck of the Dolphins. Grossman's gone after the season, and the Bears need someone to groom behind Kyle Orton. I'd offer a No. 5 if I were the Bears. … PK in Chi-Town, I just have one word for you -- "duck.'' The Bears tried to improve their offensive line by drafting Chris Williams, but his first season was destroyed by a bad back. John Tait is showing some age at right tackle. The left guard spot is wanting. There isn't much on the street available that can help. … I feel your pain, Rustin in Lubbock. Things looked encouraging this offseason for the health of Ahman Green, but then he hurt his groin. Steve Slaton might be some help, but Shaun Alexander doesn't fit the scheme, so he won't be signed. With all the great backs coming into the league, the Texans just need a break. Houston's been looking for a great running back since the Earl Campbell days. … Tyler in Camp Lejeune, the Chiefs' offense will be limited to rollouts, naked boots, screen passes and short tosses to get by with the offensive line problems. Still, I think the Chiefs are headed in the right direction. I love that draft.

Q: John, if Alex Smith fails to win the starting job is that the end of him in San Francisco? Could a deal to Green Bay for Brian Brohm give Green Bay the experienced backup they desire and S.F. the young QB to start over with? Would Mike McCarthy want to reunite with Smith?

A: Forget about the trade. That's not happening. Still, this is the beginning of the end for Smith in San Francisco. He has $24.6 million coming to him in 2009 and 2010. After the season, the team will probably release him. This is another classic example of how the league chews up talented young quarterbacks. He's only 24. Some quarterbacks coming out of college are that old. But in four years, he has been with four offensive coordinators. His mind is swimming and his career is sinking. To advance, he's probably going to have to take a step back just like Joey Harrington, David Carr and Byron Leftwich have done. That means landing on a team willing to commit a couple of seasons into rebuilding his confidence and giving him a system that might work for him. It's a shame.

Q: John, I'm 58 and a long-suffering Detroit Lions fan. How do the Lions stay so inept? Poor finishes give them better draft status … yet they still remain horrible. Would Daunte Culpepper be an upgrade over Jon Kitna?

Jeff G. in Phoenix

A: The Lions are in a tough cycle and I don't see them getting out. They are still dependent on free agency and trades to find starters. Nowadays, you have to build through the draft because good teams aren't giving up good young players. The bad drafts continue to catch up to them. They go with Dre Bly and Fernando Bryant until they think they are too old and now they go with Travis Fisher, Brian Kelly and Leigh Bodden. Normally, if you get a free agent, you are lucky to get three good starting years out of him. The Lions have got to get out of that cycle. As for Culpepper, he may be more talented than Kitna, but Kitna has experience and leadership so I don't see a change. Culpepper is good enough to start on a lot of rosters. Kitna has back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons. Still, at some point, the Lions need to find a long-term answer.

Q: Hey John. I'm a huge fan and am hoping you can give me the inside scoop on some New York Giants info. How long will it take Kenny Phillips to start in N.Y.? What's the running back depth chart? Do you think there's any chance Michael Strahan pulls a Favre in the next couple of weeks? If so, do the Giants welcome him back with open arms or trade him to the Jets?

Jimmy in Valley Stream, N.Y.

A: If they really needed him, Kenny Phillips could probably start now. He's got good range and speed. But they don't need to rush him. They have Michael Johnson and Sammy Knight, so they could put Phillips in packages and let him grow slowly. Still, I'd be surprised if he's not starting by mid-October. He's an impact rookie and will show it. Brandon Jacobs is the starter at halfback. As far as the backups, don't you get the feeling Ahmad Bradshaw is challenging for the backup job over Derrick Ward and Reuben Droughns? Clearly, the Giants are four deep at running back. Ward and Droughns are similar big backs so one might be expendable. Bradshaw has speed and shiftiness. Finally, there is no chance Strahan will return. His mind was half out of the league when he spent last summer on the beaches of France enjoying life and missing training camp. Just be thankful he came back for the Super Bowl run.

Q: I'm a HUGE Indy fan, but I gotta ask, what is the deal with Jim Sorgi? Why is he even still on our team? He has never been impressive, subpar at best. What is your take on why he is still on our team?

Jon in Indianapolis

A: It takes a special mentality to play behind Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Those guys don't miss games, so being their backup is like being a player without being able to play. For that job, you have to check your ego at the door. The good news about this summer is Sorgi has had a chance to work through his mistakes. He'll grow from this summer. The next two games will help make him a better backup if he's needed. In some ways, this could be a blessing if Manning isn't ready for the opener against the Chicago Bears. Sorgi would have four preseason games of experience with the first-team offense and might be able to get through the opener with a win. I still think Manning will be there for the Bears game.

Q: Why isn't anybody giving Rex Grossman a chance? He's not a bad player, he puts up with way more than a quarterback has to and shakes it off. He took his team to the Super Bowl. What's the deal?

An e-mailer in Boynton Beach, Fla.

A: He makes too many mistakes. Under pressure, he'll just toss the ball in the air, leaving it up for grabs to a defensive player. He hasn't generated enough scoring to compensate for the mistakes. When he took the team to the Super Bowl, his offensive line was experienced and solid. He had the benefit of a Thomas Jones-led running attack. He had receivers who believed in him. While Grossman can't be blamed for the losses of personnel around him, he has to take the heat for not getting better. Kyle Orton isn't as talented as Grossman but he makes fewer mistakes.

Q: Which is more important to an offensive line, a guard or a center, and which centers are the most dominant in the game?

Mark in Lexington, Ky.

A: A center is more important because he makes the calls and keeps the line in tackle. There has been one recent trend created by the lack of great players available in free agency. Because most top centers and left tackles don't hit the free-agent market, the one way to add personality and impact to the offensive line is to pay a left guard. The Jets did that with Alan Faneca. The Vikings did that with Steve Hutchinson. The great thing about top centers is that they stay at the top of their games forever. Kevin Mawae of the Tennessee Titans, Tom Nalen of the Denver Broncos, Jeff Saturday of the Colts and Olin Kreutz of the Bears are classic examples. LeCharles Bentley was a dominating center before he suffered his knee problems in Cleveland. Nick Mangold of the New York Jets, Andre Gurode of the Dallas Cowboys and Dan Koppen of the Patriots are emerging as the next crop of top centers.

Q: How do you feel about the Eagles' Shawn Andrews and his situation? He returned to the Eagles after holding out for weeks. He returned this week and said he was suffering from depression. What are your thoughts on this?

Chester in C-City

A: To me, the Eagles have the look of a playoff team. If I had more guts, I'd pick them over the Cowboys to win the division, but I'm sticking with the team with 13 Pro Bowl starters. I think the Eagles handled the Shawn Andrews problem with class. He was clinically depressed. Once the Eagles found out about his condition, they gave him space and time to get his mind ready to come to camp. When he arrived, they gave him a few days to get settled. They gave him a forum to speak out publicly and let him concentrate on getting ready for the regular season. Andrew showed up at 331 pounds, lighter than his playing weight. Watch in the future for Andrews to move to left tackle and become a Pro Bowler. That won't be until 2009 or later, but Andrews should remember how well the organization treated him this preseason.

Q: Hi John, With all their injuries, whom do the Seahawks have left to play wide receiver besides Nate Burleson? Do you see them keeping more of their undrafted signees like Michael Bumpus to fill in the gaps until or if Deion Branch comes back? Will they make a trade? I'm really concerned about this offense with no veteran wide receivers healthy and a patched-together running back corps. Does Julius Jones have the ability to be an every-down guy?

Justin in Los Angeles

A: Somehow, they will get through this crisis. It's not out of the question for Branch to be ready for the opener, but don't count on it. Jordan Kent and Courtney Taylor appear to be moving toward more playing time, but it's not out of the question for the Seahawks to look for a veteran off the street to get them through the first month if Branch and Bobby Engram can't play. Bumpus is still a long shot for the roster, but he could make the practice squad. The running game looks good. Julius Jones should have a good season behind the offensive line.

Q: What are the chances Brady Quinn will be the starter for the Browns if Derek Anderson underperforms? Also, what would the playoff chances be if Quinn was the starter?

Ben in Thurmount, Md.

A: I think Derek understands that if he underperforms Quinn WILL take the starting job away from him, and Anderson might be traded after the season. That's why Anderson worked hard this offseason to build up his body and cut down on his interceptions. Quinn is one of the hardest-working quarterbacks I've seen in years. He has spent five days a week since January studying tape and working on his technique. As you can see from the preseason, he has improved dramatically in working the offense. He's a fan favorite and will be a great starter. The Browns are blessed. They have two starters, but Anderson is the one who deserves to begin this season as the starter.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer