Vahe Gregorian

Chiefs’ loss to Steelers is testimony that NFL preseason is too long

This one time, in 1967, a Chiefs’ preseason game meant something.

Well, at least it did to the Chiefs, seething over legendary coach Vince Lombardi’s dismissive words after his Packers clobbered them 35-10 months before in the inaugural Super Bowl between the NFL champions and the upstarts from the American Football League.

“I don’t think Kansas City compares with the best teams in the NFL,” Lombardi said from a podium in the locker room.

Those words and an accompanying condescending wave made the Chiefs’ preseason outing against the NFL’s Chicago Bears the following August closer to a crusade than the inconsequential, incoherent exhibitions that mark this time of year.

In hindsight, purposeful as it was, the slice of history that became a 66-24 Chiefs’ skunking of the Bears that featured a late timeout and a Pete Beathard bootleg for a touchdown seems ridiculous.

Then again, who’s to say that was more preposterous than what these rehearsals have evaporated into?

Take the Chiefs’ 17-7 loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday at Heinz Field, a numbing mishmash with scant appeal to anyone without a job on the line (and those who love them) and the most bookish students of the nuances of the game.

Heck, even some of those thus invested surely were yawning.

Eighteen-game regular seasons with just two exhibitions, anyone?

I’m a 16-game guy, and the Mellinger Solution (“kill two preseason games and keep the season at 16 games”) is the right answer.

But, alas, as he also noted, the money at stake means that’s not going to happen without regular-season games to make up for them.

Now, there are plenty of complications and downsides to that idea being floated with the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association set to expire after the 2020 season.

First and foremost, there’s the increased potential for injury of marquee players vs. the notion of a 16-game limit for players (and the impact on competitive integrity in any given game). And, oh, the matter of sorting out just what financial benefit would be for the players with what the NLFPA has estimated could be $2.5 billion in annual revenue.

“They’re looking at it like, ‘Hey, get back into the mine and start mining coal,” NFLPA president Eric Winston and former Chiefs lineman told the Wall Street Journal.

Points well taken.

But let’s look at it strictly from the standpoint of the fan already paying premium prices for … what, exactly?

You might say two more regular-season games would stand only for greed. But isn’t it more of an ongoing statement of greed to attach regular-season tickets to top-dollar charges for something of little value?

If, say, an extra bye week and other compelling compensating points could be built in to avoid the oddity of a 16-game individual limit in an 18-game schedule, what fan would object?

At least we’d be on to the regular season from here instead of facing two more of these stimulus-free simulated games.

The affair to forget on Saturday, complete with an hour-long weather delay, was cause in itself for some re-evaluation for those otherwise inclined to stick with the modern tradition of a 16-game regular season that has prevailed since the move from 14 in 1978.

As it should be with zero at stake, the game was defined by the drab play-calls and schemes (so as not to betray anything for when it counts) and the prime directive of only cameo roles for the most pivotal players to minimize the chance of injury.

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, coach Andy Reid said beforehand, was going to play the first half. He played just two series, discretion being the better part of valor and all.

But that dynamic speaks to why this offered virtually no intrigue or drama.

Or anything whatsoever to be concluded about where this team is headed beyond some spot useful information:

Another touchdown for rookie receiver Mecole Hardman, with a nice burst of speed and fine catch … Rookie running back Darwin Thompson again flashed promise with 30 yards on four carries … Good job reading a screen and snuffing it out by linebacker Ben Niemann … Way to go, Charvarius Ward on that 49-yard interception return out of the end zone at the end of the first half.

Yes, game situations are more revealing than practices. But two of those games are more than ample, especially considering all the NFL’s offseason team training (“voluntary” and otherwise) activities and opportunities to evaluate personnel, and that no team plays any regulars in the last preseason game.

Ultimately, 18 regular-season games may just be too hard a sell for many valid reasons, not the least of which is that the very notion defies the idea that player safety is paramount.

But this is certain: Fifty-two years after one preseason game that had resonance for the Chiefs, four preseason games is at least two too many — and it’s well-past time that’s acknowledged and acted upon.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.