DENVER (AP) – The Denver Broncos didn’t put the season opener on their calendar, even though it’s Russell Wilson’s return to Seattle.
Had they emphasized returning their $296 million man to the city where he spent a decade leading the Seahawks to their only Super Bowl title, the Broncos wouldn’t have kept him on the sidelines with their other players in the preseason.
“That’s what I’ve been doing the last three years,” explained new Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett, who was taught the sit-’em philosophy by Packers coach Matt LaFleur, who copied the doctrine from Rams coach Sean McVay, who was has been doing it since 2018.
McVay is 51-23, including 7-2 in the playoffs, after downgrading the preseason and keeping his starters out until September. They are also the defending Super Bowl champions.
The Packers endured Aaron Rodgers last summer and were crushed 38-3 by the Saints in their opener, but responded with their third straight 13-win season.
“It’s shown that we’ve been able to do well throughout the year,” said Hackett, who served as LaFleur’s offensive coordinator from 2019-21. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the whole year — not Week 1, Week 2, Week 3. We want to make sure we’re going to be successful all season long.”
Hackett said he did it this way “for health reasons”, adding: “I’m glad the guys are healthy, fresh and ready to go.”
Even if they won’t be as sharp as they could have been if Russell had actually taken some snaps in the preseason to say that black eyes and those shoulder pads to use.
With teams de-emphasizing preseason games in recent years, September tends to be slippery as starters work out the wrinkles they used to iron out in August.
Broncos general manager George Patton bought into his new coach’s approach to training camp, one that included plenty of “regen” days (after a full practice, a light one) and none of the traditional 7-on – 7 drills and accompanying 1-on-1 rush drills that have been training camp staples for generations.
“I liked his plan for training camp,” Patton said. “Whether we start slow or not, I don’t know, but in the middle to late season, I think it will benefit us.”
Hackett said he put safety and science ahead of risk and ritual.
“I’m a little surprised that for a new quarterback and a new group they didn’t at least get a series at some point, but, you know, I understand why Hackett took the approach he did,” the Hall of Fame QB said. Troy Aikman, who will make his “Monday Night Football” booth debut alongside Joe Buck in Wilson’s return game.
Aikman couldn’t imagine going into a season without taking a single snap in the preseason.
“I wouldn’t like it, honestly,” he said. “I mean, I guess times are changing. Maybe if I played in today’s game, I’d feel differently, but I needed the job.
“I just felt like I needed it. I felt like our team needed it. Our offense needed it to go out there and play and just get back into the swing of things,” explained Aikman, whose career included a time when the originals played often. one quarter in the preseason opener, the first half in Game 2, three quarters in Game 3 and the entire Game 4 as a final tune-up for the regular season.
Now, there are only three preseason games because the league added a 17th regular-season game last year, and most teams use them as dress rehearsals for district play, things like communications and game-day protocols.
“I don’t know. I’m a little old school in my approach. I think if the whole approach to training camp is to keep people healthy, then let’s not have a preseason,” Aikman said.
“Then the coaches will say, yes, but we need preparation to evaluate these players. Colleges have no preseason and evaluate their players. If you’re a good coach and you can evaluate talent, you can evaluate a player in practice and know whether or not he’s better than the player next to him and who’s going to be on that roster.
“Obviously, it’s all about money for the NFL. So I’m not someone who advocates decisions like that being made just for the bottom line, so I don’t know that the preseason is great for anybody, to be honest.”
Many teams use joint practices against preseason opponents as a better evaluator anyway, even though hotheads made dual practices a hazard this summer.
It’s not just the new generation of coaches who find little use for preparation anymore.
“Bill Belichick, for example, approaches the first four games as an extension of training camp,” Aikman pointed out. “Now, they’re generally winning, as we know. They’re going to start in September and they’re going to be 3-1, 4-0, whatever. They’re able to evaluate and develop players while still winning. Not everybody was in position to do this all these years.
“Well, for Denver, I would expect there to be some things that aren’t as good early in the year, just because of the timing and the things that lead to success offensively.”
So Wilson might not be able to stick it to the team that gave him a divorce after his relationship with coach Pete Carroll soured in recent years. Either way, the best return would be to help the Broncos end a six-year playoff drought, regardless of how his homecoming game Monday night turns out.
More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL