NFL Conundrum: Practice Like You Play or Rest for the Season?

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions.

How much will the starters play in preseason? — Jason W., Rolling Meadows

You’re asking about something most coaches, Matt Eberflus included, treat as a closely guarded secret. I do find it a little amazing that coaches — and this isn’t commentary on only Eberflus — can spend the offseason charting what they will do down to the minute through training camp and leading up to the regular season but don’t know what they’re going to do in preseason games. Yes, it’s a little early and things can shift, but the reality is coaches don’t want to reveal their plans until they inform the players, which happens much closer to game time.

“We’ve talked about that a little,” Eberflus said Tuesday. “Have not finalized it right now. But we actually visited about that this morning. It will be some time — it will be some play time. But what that is right now, I’m not sure.”

Whether that means playing time for starters in the preseason opener Aug. 12 against the Tennessee Titans, we don’t know. Many teams have taken a hard stance against playing front-line players in preseason action, and the Bears certainly don’t want to expose quarterback Justin Fields, wide receiver DJ Moore, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and other key players to injuries in meaningless games.

I’m also of the opinion that a handful of snaps probably doesn’t do a lot to prepare a player for the regular season. You aren’t going to convince me that 15 snaps for Braxton Jones at left tackle in the preseason are going to make him any more or less prepared for Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers.

A couple thoughts here.

First I kind of understand why coaches don’t want to talk about things like this. It isn’t that it’s some closely guarded national secret that’s going to make or break the season. But if you tell the media what your plans are and then something happens during the game and those plans don’t come to fruition, you’re going to be asked about it. Sometimes that’s OK. But there are times when coaches don’t want to explain, for instance, that a player didn’t get as many snaps as planned because they sustained an injury that no one wants to talk about Coaches would much rather keep reporters in the dark and tell you that whatever happened was the original plan.

I’m not defending it. But I do understand it.

Second, my guess is that the starters won’t see much playing time in the pre-season. I think the indications are that the Bears are one of those teams that prefers to keep their players healthy during the summer at the expense of training time.

I know that there are some coaches who prefer to go with the “practice like you play” philosophy. This would mean, to some extent, playing through injuries even during the summer so that players understand that that’s what’s expected and get used to it.

After all, as the players say, the only game that you ever play in the NFL when you’re completely healthy is your first one. If you aren’t practicing every time something hurts, you basically arne’t practicing.

I am reminded of the Chase Claypool incident where the Bears put him on the injured list to begin camp and then the very next day took him off. In my head, I imagined the Bears saying to themselves that they prefer to have him completely healthy for the season and rest whatever minor injury is bothering him. I would speculate that Claypool, coming from Pittsburgh, is more of the mind that you play through those things even when you practice. It’s a question of being tough and setting an example for the other players. My guess is that Claypool’s training with a tough, no nonsense organization told him that was the right thing to do. So he told the bears to take him off of the injured list.

That’s pure speculation. But I know tthat’s what some successful organizations expect and I can see it happening.

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