Last year, Baltimore Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins took the field as a 21-year-old rookie and averaged 7.9 yards per carry in the team's first five games. That despite the fact that the second-round pick from Ohio State didn't take a single preseason snap.
Of course, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, nobody took a preseason snap in 2020. Yet new players in new settings like Dobbins, Jonathan Taylor of the Indianapolis Colts, Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers and Chase Claypool of the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't miss a beat.
Training camp sufficed for those guys, just as it increasingly has for veterans like Aaron Rodgers, who doesn't touch preseason football with 10-foot poles. More and more coaches have seemingly come to that realization and are limiting or sidelining starters throughout the preseason, but some still stubbornly force key players at fragile positions to expose themselves to potential injuries for no good reason.
Dobbins might have become a poster child for that mentality Saturday night in the Ravens' final preseason game.
Even though Dobbins led all qualified NFL backs by a wide margin with a 6.0 yards-per-attempt average without a preseason in 2020, and even though he carried the ball seven times in Baltimore's first two preseason outings this month, and even though he also got scrimmage work in during joint practices with the Carolina Panthers earlier in August, John Harbaugh just couldn't help himself.
He sent Dobbins out there alongside Lamar Jackson, Mark Andrews, Ronnie Stanley and other starters against the Washington Football Team Saturday evening. Sure enough, nine plays into that game for the Baltimore offense, Dobbins suffered a potentially serious knee injury that could cost him significant time and could hinder the Ravens' chances in the tough and likely tight AFC North.
Harbaugh told the media after Saturday's 37-3 "victory" that the severity of Dobbins' injury had yet to be determined. We all hope it's not as bad as it looked, but he couldn't put any weight on his left knee and was carted to Baltimore's locker room.
Regardless, the risk of an injury to a proven and critical player at a vulnerable position like running back is absolutely not worth whatever that player or his offense gets out of his limited presence against backups in a meaningless game.
Harbaugh has himself in the past derided the preseason and the injury risk associated with these exhibition games. He's viewed as a forward-thinking head coach. And yet he has continued to throw starters to the wolves on a consistent basis over the course of a rather silly 20-game preseason winning streak.
He's not alone, and he wouldn't be the first coach to pay the price this preseason. Jacksonville Jaguars first-round rookie back Travis Etienne Jr. went down with a season-ending Lisfranc injury in the Jags' second preseason game, and in the last preseason before COVID-19 hit the league in 2020, Cam Newton suffered a foot injury against the New England Patriots that nagged him for his entire season.
Injuries do happen in practice, albeit less frequently because the environment is typically less adversarial and more controlled. And the New York Jets lost highly-paid new pass-rusher Carl Lawson to a season-ending injury in a joint practice earlier this month. There's an element of inevitability with football injuries, and it's up to coaches to find a happy medium when it comes to the battle between preparation and exposure.
Just as common sense dictates that the more you drive, the more likely you are to have an accident, the more football snaps you play, the more likely you are to suffer a minor or major injury. Harbaugh knows this, as did Ron Rivera when he played Newton in the 2019 preseason and Urban Meyer with Etienne last week.
You'd hate for anybody to have to play the role of a human cautionary tale, but more coaches oughta take note of what Dobbins, Harbaugh and the Ravens are going through this weekend.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.