J.K. Dobbins entered the 2021 preseason coming off a stellar rookie campaign in Baltimore. Though he was only the Ravens’ starter for one game in 2020, Dobbins finished the season with 805 yards on 134 carries (6.0 yards per carry), 120 receiving yards, and nine rushing touchdowns.
Heading into Washington for the final game before regular-season action, Dobbins wasn’t lighting up stat sheets with his preseason performances, but that mostly had to do with his limited time on the field in the first two games. After two victories to open the preseason, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh opted once more to run with his starters to begin their third game. Nine plays into the Ravens’ opening drive Dobbins tore his ACL. He will now miss the entire 2021 season.
Preseason and training camp injuries are among the most devastating for teams around the NFL. The New York Jets had to face that just a couple of weeks ago. Now the Ravens face their own challenge. Obviously, teams want to avoid injuries in the preseason at all costs. Often that means keeping starters and presumed roster locks on the sideline for a majority of the snaps in preseason games, especially those closer to the start of the regular season. In previous years, back when the preseason had four games, starters would almost always spend the fourth week of the preseason on the bench to rest and reset ahead of the regular season.
Unfortunately, Harbaugh and the Ravens had to learn the hard way that the old method—treating the third game as a “dress rehearsal” for the regular season—is not necessarily the best one in the new, 17-week regular season format.
Going forward, continuing to treat the third—and now final—preseason game in the same way will be a calculated risk for teams that stick with their starters. So for the 2022 season and beyond, should teams play starters in the third week of the preseason?
Of the 30 teams that played this weekend (the New Orleans Saints vs. Arizona Cardinals game was canceled as a result of Hurricane Ida), 14 teams began the game with their starters on the field. Of those 14, only two teams kept their starters on for just one drive: the Cincinnati Bengals and the Ravens. Cincinnati always planned to limit Burrow and their starters, but for Baltimore, that’s either a factor of Dobbins’ injury or just really bad luck.
Among the other 12 teams was one real head-scratcher. While the 11 other teams have newcomers that need one last chance to figure out a new system, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl… and they’re the first team ever to have all 22 starters from a Super Bowl team return the following year. Yet, head coach Bruce Arians stuck to the old dress rehearsal formula, so Tampa Bay kept Tom Brady and the first team in for three drives—a three-and-out and two touchdowns—against the Houston Texans.
The Ravens’ current situation shows us that going forward, the risk of sticking to the dress rehearsal plan for the third week of the preseason is not one worth taking. While most teams this year got away with it without the same repercussions, how many will be willing to roll the dice again next year, having seen the challenge Baltimore now faces? Coaches around the NFL should and likely will reconsider their preseason strategies before next year, or they risk potentially disastrous losses to injury before the regular season even begins.
In the future, the third game of the preseason might look more like the way the Washington Football Team and head coach Ron Rivera handled it, ironically against Baltimore. Rather than a final chance for starters to work out the kinks before regular-season action, the final preseason game was the last chance for players on Washington’s 53-man bubble to prove why they deserved to make the team. The Football Team’s starters didn’t risk injury, and they’ll start the season the way they planned as a result. Other teams may follow suit going forward, but for the 2021 season, we’ll have to see how the Ravens deal with the unfortunate and unlucky consequences.