EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The Chicago Bears didn't play a single starter against the Giants on Friday night, and Mitch Trubisky and Khalil Mack probably won't play this preseason at all. It's the same in L.A., with Jared Goff and Todd Gurley. Saquon Barkley probably won't play this summer either, and Le'Veon Bell has already been ruled out.
A decade ago - less, even - such a mass sit-out would have been unthinkable in the preseason. Players played in increasing amounts in at least the first three games. Coaches felt they had to, in order to get ready for the regular season.
So what happened?
"I don't know," said Giants coach Pat Shurmur. "At one point, we all thought the world was flat, too."
Yes, it's true, even the NFL can evolve, and coaches and organizations increasingly lean towards protecting their players (and investments). But it's happening so fast it's making many wonder if in five years there'll be any starters playing in preseason games at all.
The truth, though, is that the preseason hasn't outlived its usefulness yet. There are plenty of NFL coaches who think it's important, and not just for their rookies and second- or third-strings. They see value in the experience, even if it's just a handful of plays or series, and even for veterans who have spent years in the league.
"You can't fake football," Shurmur told SNY after practice on Monday. "And it's something that you've got to play together. I do think there's benefit to all the players playing - or most all of the players playing -- in preseason."
It is that qualifier, of course, that makes this interesting. Shurmur hasn't announced it yet, but he's not expected to play Barkley at all this summer. That makes sense, since the 22-year-old running back is one of the most important players on the team.
Yet Shurmur is still playing Eli Manning, his 37-year-old starting quarterback -- two series in two games so far, and maybe one or two more in Cincinnati on Thursday night. Playing Manning is worth the risk to him. Playing Barkley is not.
"They're at two different positions," Shurmur explained. "So like anything, you think of the team and you think of the individual and how it affects them. The quarterback does a lot of directing. There's a lot that he does that's important for the whole team to function. There's other position groups where they're involved with the scheme, but it's not always quite as integral as it is with other positions."
That's likely how Gase justifies playing quarterback Sam Darnold -- the most important player on his roster -- while not risking Bell, a 27-year-old who probably could use a series or two considering he hasn't played in an actual game in nearly 19 months. The risk, to put it simply, seems reasonable when certainly players are involved.
That's how it seemed to Gase on Thursday night when he had linebacker Avery Williamson on the field late in the first half, playing twice as much as the rest of the defensive starters. He wanted Williamson on the field, he explained, because they wanted young linebacker Neville Hewitt to "be with a guy that's a starter," as he learned a new position.
That seemed logical right up until the moment Williamson tore his ACL.
"Hindsight is 20/20," Gase said on Sunday night. "I wish I would have gotten him out of there a series earlier."
"But there's a risk in practicing as well," Shurmur said. "This is the greatest team sport in the world and you can't fake football, so you do have to practice it somewhere. And anytime you practice, in theory you're exposed to risk. You can't wrap these guys in bubble wrap and then spring them on Opening Day and expect them to be ready."
Again, maybe not all the players. But apparently some. Which is why the NFL preseason likely isn't going anywhere. Some coaches think they can accomplish just as much in practice. Others even prefer joint practices and controlled scrimmages. But there still is an overwhelming number of coaches who remain convinced of the value in these meaningless games.
Even if a veteran is in there for just a few series, some coaches -- like Shurmur -- believe there's a benefit that players simply can't get anywhere else.
"Absolutely," Shurmur said. "You know, it's the coordination of playing more than just the individual skills that the players go through. And there's going to the game knowing you've got to play and preparing your mind to play the game. Guys that know they're not playing in the game, they can't help it. It's human nature. Their mindset won't be as tight as someone who knows they're playing.
"So there's something to be learned from that, whether they play a bunch (in the preseason game) or not."