Expert Analysis


4 min read

Preseason Is the Stuff of Nightmares for General Managers

Bill Polian shaking hands with Colts player.

As a general manager in the NFL, you’re scared to death this time of year.

You go into every preseason game holding your breath about the possibility of injury, because these games don’t count in the standings. It literally keeps you up at night.

Football’s a contact game…a collision game. There are going to be injuries. Now, an injury in the preseason doesn’t hit you as hard as one in—let’s say, OTAs—which is totally avoidable.

Still, when it happens in the preseason, it takes a viable player off the field, and that’s hard to swallow.

Hoping to Avoid Injury

The effort to avoid injuries in preseason requires very, very strict regimentation in terms of the number of reps your starters play. In the case of Tom Brady and superstars like that, they don’t play at all. Nevertheless, injuries do occur. If they happen to significant players, they are extremely hurtful to your team.

In preparation for each preseason game, there’s a meeting where the majority of the talking is done by the coaching staff. The main questions being addressed are: How many reps do the starters get? Who do we want to see more of in this upcoming game?

Senior personnel people, the head athletic trainer, the strength and conditioning coach, the Head Coach and General Manager are also there. The head trainer and the strength and conditioning coach contribute vital information. Sometimes, a doctor will be there, too—if there has been a serious injury in camp or if a player is coming off of an injury where you need the doctor’s opinion.

I would take notes and maybe answer a question about roster rules if someone had one.

Bottom line: It was the assistant coaches’ meeting, and they’d forcefully make their cases about who should play and for how long. If the head coach didn’t feel a guy should be in there, then that was his decision. The assistant coaches are very deferential to the head coach. He’s the boss.

Advocating For Snaps

When I was with the Indianapolis Colts, the offensive line coach might say he wanted to see a lot more of a rookie guard, and he’d like to see him with the first group because he performed very well in a scrimmage, and he was challenging for a starting job.

Someone might say, “Well, if we’re not going to play Peyton Manning with the first group, we can afford to put the rookie guard in there.” But Tony Dungy might say, “I’d like Peyton to get a few reps.” And then the response would be, “Well, we can’t put a rookie in there if Peyton is going to be in there.” Tony then would say, “That’s fine. We’ll leave the first group in a little longer and get the rookie in as soon as Peyton leaves the game.”

You have a whiteboard, and someone is assigned to make notes on it as to who’s going to play with whom, how many plays that person is going to get and where his place is in the pecking order of guys that have a chance to make the team or have a chance to ascend to a starting position.

Immediately following that meeting—as was case when I was with the Buffalo Bills, with Marv Levy, and the Colts, with Tony—I’d sit down with the head coach. For instance, I’d say to Tony, “Okay, so we’ll get the rookie guard in there as soon as Peyton leaves the game so he’s in with the first group of offensive linemen, but with the second quarterback. He should probably get 10 plays, maybe 15 if he’s doing okay.”

Tony would give whatever additional thoughts he had, and we’d arrive at a decision. That’s done with every position. Once you’ve mapped out the reps, you share that with the owner, so he knows who’s going to play, when and why. Then the head coach will announce the plan to the players and the assistant coaches in the meeting the next day as they begin preparation for the game.

The Goal

The perfect preseason ends with your team in great physical condition, ready to open the regular season and with no major injuries to anyone who’s going to play a major role on your team and you have identified and added new and younger players who improve your team.

Nowhere in there did I say anything about wins or losses. These games do not count, but they are important to the growth and preparation of your team.

As Told to Vic Carucci