Why I don't like the NFL preseason
There are many reasons the phony football of August is not worth watching
Winning or losing games in the preseason doesn't really matter
When star players have to beg for a series or two, you know something's wrong
Remember that rather mournful Green Day ballad of a few years back, "Wake Me Up When September Ends''? I feel roughly the same way about August and the NFL's 65-game preseason schedule.
It's not accurate to say that I loath this time of year on the NFL calendar, but it's entirely fair to say I don't like it. And I do believe I'm in the vast majority on this issue, otherwise why would league commissioner Roger Goodell himself be leading the charge to slice the preseason schedule down to just two games and add a couple weeks to the regular season? By and large, the NFL and its fans crave less of the phony football and more of the real stuff. And for good reason. Make that reasons. And here they are:
1. It's not the harbinger of what's to come in the regular season. Not by a long shot. At best you get to see snippets and hints of what might unfold. The case in point that everyone knows by now is the 2008 Detroit Lions, who stormed through the preseason 4-0 and then cooled off for the next four months. From undefeated to winless is as stark a contrast as you could experience, and it underlines just how meaningless the NFL's entire August exercise can be rendered.
And the Lions weren't the only examples last preseason. New England went 0-4, holding Tom Brady out of every game, but still went 11-5 without the injured Brady when it counted. Baltimore was a sloppy 1-3 in the preseason, then became one of the surprise stories of the year with an 11-5 record and a pair of playoff wins. Indianapolis was 1-4 and then 12-4, and Minnesota shrugged off its 1-3 August and won 10 games and a division title for the first time since 2000. On the flip side, Jacksonville's 3-1 preseason didn't translate to big things in the regular season, and neither did Tampa Bay's 3-1 mark.
2. There is nothing more meaningless than a preseason game. My colleague, friend and football historian Paul Zimmerman always likes to say that he can take an interest in watching almost any sporting event if there's something really on the line. If there's something at stake, Dr. Z can find it compelling.
Can most fans (or players for that matter) even remember their team's exhibition season record even a month into the regular season? When it's first team versus first team for maybe the first quarter, it's watchable and somewhat usable as a measuring stick. After that, it's just a glorified scrimmage, at regular-season ticket prices.
Just look at how many preseason games swing decidedly on the third-teamers' showing in the fourth quarter after the first team's performance in the first quarter told an entirely different story (see Redskins 17-13 over the Steelers last weekend). It's a little like watching a movie that was scripted and directed by one person in the first hour, and then ended by someone else.
3. The drama of fighting for a job is overblown. There are those who say they find watching the preseason battles for roster spots or starting jobs fascinating. In a few high-profile cases, I'll grant you that. It can be decent theater to follow the week to week doings of a quarterback competition like the one unfolding in Cleveland, Detroit or Tampa Bay this month. (Although they're never as dramatic or as steeped in significance as we bill them. How long was it again that the Charlie Frye era lasted in Cleveland in 2007? Fifteen minutes?).
But in reality, there are not a bunch of teams with a free-for-all of job openings or roster slots. Most teams have only a handful of positions at stake, and in a lot of cases you're talking about rosters that are practically set except for maybe three or four players who will play on special teams and provide depth as backups. New England probably could have picked 48 or 49 of its final 53-man roster the day before training camp opened.
And while quarterback competitions might be fun, how many fans really locked in on the Patriots' long-snapping competition, or the intense battle that just got decided at center for the Packers? What? You weren't aware that Jason Spitz just beat out incumbent Scott Wells and will anchor the middle of the Green Bay's offensive line? It wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that centers don't really exist when it comes to fantasy football, would it?
4. There's something about the intensity of an NFL regular-season weekend that simply can't be matched, and watching preseason action only reminds us of what's missing. Those crowd shots in the second half of a Giants or Jets preseason game at the Meadowlands -- and sometimes in the first half, too -- say it all. The empty, cavernous look of the stadium belies the fact that you can't make people care about a product that's far below the standards they've come to know and love in the regular season.
There's a ragged, helter skelter-like quality to the football in August, and while that can be entertaining for about five minutes, it's like watching an hour-long blooper reel. I'm not immune to the lure of seeing the young, hungry player trying to make his mark in the league as a long shot, but the interceptions, fumbles, false starts, holding penalties, incompletions and pass interference calls all start to blend together and leave you bleary eyed and longing for the clarity of the regular season. (Unless you're a Raiders fans. Then the sloppiness never really ends.)
5. The lack of star players is disappointing. While fan loyalty to the uniform is paramount in the NFL, meaning a Packers fan is a Packers fan first, and say, a Brett Favre fan second (or 11th, as the case may now be), the absence of star players or at least recognizable names on the field make the preseason as appetizing as watered down soup. Cameo appearances (or less) for the starters, and the ever-increasing fear of injury has rendered the preseason a necessary evil that grows closer to charade every year. When Brady or LaDainian Tomlinson have to, in essence, beg their way onto the field, why should I have to break a sweat proving that August in the NFL is a joke?
I might enjoy seeing a player or two who I've tracked from the NFL draft to the field in August -- like Patriots seventh-round pick Julian Edelman -- but watching a host of players who will never see an NFL regular-season Sunday as they count down to the inevitable cut-down days isn't what I consider must-see TV at this point in my life. After all, if I were into nameless and faceless football for the sake of football, I would be eagerly anticipating the debut of the UFL.
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