The Extra Point What Numbers Tell Us About Preseason Play Time

What Numbers Tell Us About Preseason Play Time

October 23, 2019

One aspect of football that has recently been a point of discussion is the role of preseason games. As of the 1978 season, teams have almost always played four preseason games in each season. 

To assess how preseason games may have changed over the past decade or so, our Football Operations data and analytics group analyzed team behavior dealing with the playtime of players who started for their teams during Week 1 of the regular season. When looking at this group of eventual starters, how often did they play in each of the four preseason weeks? 

The following chart shows the percent of possible snaps for Week 1 starters in each week of the preseason, as well as Week 1 of the regular season. Averaged across all positions, starters typically play about 80-85 percent of the available snaps in a regular season game, a rate which has mostly stayed consistent over time. This is important, as it suggests that any drop in playtime is not due to coaches using player rotations more often.

Alternatively, playtime in preseason games for Week 1 starters has dropped substantially over the last decade. In the figure, the lines in blue have been trending downwards for several years, reaching all-time lows for playtime in 2019. 

Some facts that stood out:

  • Among preseason Week 3 games (abbreviated as Pre W3 in the chart), Week 1 starters played nearly 50 percent of available snaps in 2010. In 2019, Week 1 starters played 23.6 percent of available snaps.
  • Week 1 starters only played 1.7 percent of available snaps in preseason Week 4 games in 2019.
  • The year-over-year drop in preseason participation of Week 1 starters was larger this past year (2019 vs. 2018) than in any previous period over the last decade.
  • In 2019, there were 85 regular season Week 1 starters that did not play a single snap during the preseason. From 2008 to 2018, the league averaged 24 such players per season.

Altogether, snap time percentages among Week 1 starters dropped to new lows in 2019, information that is valuable as the league assesses the role of preseason games in the context of the larger framework of NFL scheduling.