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Olson: Bears should play preseason like it matters

The longer you take off from work, the longer it takes to get back into the swing of things.

Take a week off and it’s usually Wednesday before you’re back in gear. Two weeks off, and “vacation mode” can linger for a week.

So how will the NFL – even a veteran team such as the Bears – look after 41⁄2 months away?

The guess here is not so hot, which is all the more reason that the Bears should approach this preseason differently than in years past, starting when training camp opens Friday at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais.

Those players they plan to start in the regular season? Get ’em in there and let them play. Not just a series or two, either, but a whole half or more.

For one, sending out players who fans actually want to see in each of their four preseason games would be good payback to people who have to buy the tickets.

More importantly, the Bears need the work.

If they and the rest of the league take their traditional lackadaisical approach to the exhibition schedule, it might be mid-October before the NFL football looks the way we remember before all this started.

Yes, there’s a sensible rationale for using starters sparingly during the preseason. Teams want to protect their top talent from serious injuries. They also want to evaluate players in the running for a few available roster and practice squad spots as special-teamers or backups of backups.

But preseason games often degenerate into players who are just taking up roster slots playing against other players just taking up roster slots.

For years, fans have let it slide. We’ve been conditioned to expect the exhibition games to be meaningless contests mostly played by people we don’t expect to remember come September.

This isn’t most years, however.

This year, players and coaches have had no contact with each other for months. The sporadic pickup workouts held by the Bears and other teams are a sorry substitute for the organized team activities that were wiped away this year.

Even the Bears, one of the league’s more established teams from a roster standpoint, will have several new faces who need to get up to speed.

The five players they drafted in late April – offensive tackle Gabe Carimi, defensive tackle Stephen Paea, safety Chris Conte, quarterback Nathan Enderle and linebacker J.T. Thomas – have seen almost nothing and probably learned little of the team since.

The Bears also probably will sign a few new faces in the coming days to start on their offensive and defensive lines, and (please) a big-bodied wide receiver, all of whom will need time to get up to speed on how the Bears operate.

The only real way to do that is in live action against real competition.

The “don’t play the starters” approach in the preseason probably is partially to blame for why NFL football isn’t terribly good the first few weeks.

There always are fluky outcomes in the early weeks. Bad teams beat good ones. There are high-scoring games where nobody plays defense and low-scoring, penalty plagued snorefests where neither side can stop tripping over itself.

Last season, the Bears won three games in a row and it was hard to tell if they were any good or not. After Jay Cutler was pummeled by the New York Giants’ defense in a Sunday night massacre at the New Meadowlands, it was even harder to tell.

For months, we’ve been bombarded with reports that the NFL is a $9 billion industry. But the product shouldn’t suffer this season because the players and owners took so long to settle their money squabble.

Which is why this preseason matters more than most.

The Bears ought to approach it that way.

• Eric Olson is the Northwest Herald’s sports editor. Reach him at 815-526-4554, email eolson@nwherald.com, or follow him on Twitter at NWH_EricOlson.

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