DENVER — The sight of J.J. Watt donning a baseball cap even before the Houston Texans’ first defensive series was over said it all: teams are changing the way they treat the preseason.
Starters have traditionally played into the second half of the third exhibition game, a final tuneup for the regular season.
Yet, even Peyton Manning had no need for his helmet when the Denver Broncos returned to the field after halftime against the Texans on Saturday night.
Houston coach Bill O’Brien and Denver coach John Fox figured they’d given their starters plenty of work during three days of intense joint practices during the week.
So, some stars made cameo appearances -- if that -- and nearly every starter was a sideline spectator by the second-half kickoff.
"Any team will tell you that once you get your full squad together, that's really what you're looking for," Watt said. "But it's the preseason and the main thing is getting to the regular season healthy."
Dialing things back in the third preseason game might just be a blueprint for handling the preseason in the future. And joint practices are the perfect substitute for those snaps the starters are missing.
Joint practices have been a staple of the NFL for years, but they've become more popular since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement put an end to the old two-a-days in full gear and limited practice time and the amount of hitting that's allowed.
Training almost year-round with nutritional programs and cutting edge technologies and techniques means players no longer have to use the preseason to build up strength and stamina.
Instead, veterans can get situational snaps at practice and then watch players on the bubble play on game day because now it's all about getting through August without a trip to the trainer's room or doctor's office.
Nearly half of the league's 32 teams practiced against another team this summer.
Some, like the Patriots and Texans, practiced against multiple opponents. The Harbaugh brothers got the 49ers and Ravens together following their preseason game.
Washington coach Jay Gruden said joint practices are a good way to get the veterans necessary work because with "every team in the NFL, the No. 1 unit is limited" in the preseason as it is.
Ratcheting up the intensity during the dog days of August is a good way to break the monotony of training camp, indoctrinate the rookies and get a better gauge on players.
"When you're seeing the same guys day in and day out, sometimes you get jaded. When you go against another team, I think it gives you a fresh perspective on where you are," said Titans first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt, who took his team to Georgia for a quick workout against the Falcons.
Joint practices have inherent drawbacks, though.
"There are going to be fights," Denver left tackle Ryan Clady said. "It's kind of the nature of the game."
When the Cowboys and Raiders got together for a spirited joint session this month, Dallas coach Jason Garrett called it "as electric an atmosphere as I have been on, on a practice field, really in my life." Oakland coach Dennis Allen said he almost had to quiet down the crowd at times "just so we could get some plays off."
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones didn't mind the two brawls that broke out, either.
"Seriously, that passion, that's mostly what I'd hoped what we would get out of getting these teams together," Jones said.
The Texans and Broncos had several skirmishes during their six hours of officiated practices.
"It's football, there's testosterone out here and people get excited," Watt said. "Practicing with each other for three days, we're professional athletes, guys get excited, get a little antsy so that's fine."
The bad blood boiled over into the game when Manning was whistled for the first taunting foul of his career.
After throwing a touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders just before halftime, he rushed up to safety D.J. Swearinger, who was at the centre of several scrums last week and whose hard hit one play earlier left Wes Welker with a concussion.
"The week had something to do with it," Swearinger said. "The hit right before that had something to do with it, so it's all football, bro."
Joint practices will probably become even more popular if the NFL adopts an 18-game regular season and chops the four-game preseason in half.
What made the Texans-Broncos workouts unusual was the timing.
Teams usually get together early in camp, not this late.
The Broncos figure to be hosting opponents for joint practices in the future now that their $35 million indoor practice facility is nearing completion. It has hot tubs, locker rooms, classrooms. And Fox said he's open to doing this again, even this late in the preseason.
"The time doesn't concern me," Fox said. "We will evaluate, but my feeling right now is yes."
One coach who won't jump on the bandwagon is Kansas City's Andy Reid, who doesn't want opponents gleaning any morsel from his team.
"I've never been that big on it," Reid said. "I know a lot of teams do it, a lot of successful teams do it. I just don't want to give anyone anything that I don't have to give."