The Green Bay Packers, chafed a bit from an unaccustomed two straight defeats, roused themselves from an understandable lethargy to put the upstart Dallas Cowboys in their place in the Cotton Bowl last Saturday night, 31-27. It was a cheering victory for quiet Phil Bengtson, who drives the Packers with an obviously looser rein than did Vincent Lombardi, and it served notice to the experts who had begun to write off the Packers that there has been little change in the club.
The two teams which met on this humid August evening bore only a slight resemblance to the clubs that will meet again in the Cotton Bowl in October and possibly a third time for the NFL championship. The Packers may win in October, and once more in December, but they will beat a different Cowboy team and will field a different club while doing it. For this was what Commissioner Pete Rozelle prefers to call a preseason game and what, in franker days, was called an exhibition game. It provided a good excuse for some 72,000 Dallas fans to get out of their houses and into the open air on a hot night and it was entertaining and exciting, but as a measure of the relative strengths of these clubs it was all but meaningless.
The fans, to be sure, did not come in expectation of seeing a replay of the classic championship contests these teams have put on in the last two years. It was made abundantly clear in the pre-game publicity that Jerry Rhome, Dallas' third-string quarterback, would play all of the second half or share it with Craig Morton, the Dallas No. 2. Dallas fans over the years have learned to expect Tom Landry to experiment with his forces in the preseason games, and that is precisely what he did. So did Bengtson, who used Bart Starr for the first quarter, then gave Zeke Bratkowski an opportunity to sharpen himself for the season to come. The game was entertainment and it had moments of real excitement—as when Travis Williams broke off the right side of the substitute Dallas line and fled 75 yards for a touchdown, and again late in the game when Pete Gent outjumped a couple of Green Bay defenders to score for the Cowboys. But the two varsities appeared only for about a quarter apiece. The Green Bay starters beat the Dallas starters 7-0 before the testing program for rookies and substitutes began.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, and it is unlikely that any of the fans in the Cotton Bowl felt cheated—nor should they have. But it is a bit ridiculous when the league insists on calling these contests preseason games to give them a surface importance not justified by the facts.
Like most exhibition games, this one proved only what the coach or owner wanted it to prove. The games played before the regular season starts were once honestly called exhibitions and played as laboratory exercises to determine which combination of ingredients would be the most effective once the teams began to play for keeps. Now, because of the tremendous increase in costs for all pro football clubs, these games have come to mean necessary added income. Already this year preseason games have drawn 1.6 million, and attendance seems certain to surpass last year's record of 2,001,547. For some teams victory in these games has also become important.
In 1967, for instance, New Orleans, one of the two or three worst football teams in the NFL and playing in its first season, managed to win five of its six preseason games because Tom Fears, the head coach, had been instructed to do so. He brought the club into camp at San Diego a week early, worked his players mercilessly and met the more relaxed, less intense older teams with personnel that had reached midseason form in early August. Fears knew very well that his club would run out of gas early, but by the time it began to falter New Orleans fans had taken their heroes to their hearts and the franchise was off and winging.
This year the Saints are going through what is in effect an agonizing reappraisal. The old men with a season or two left in their aging muscles will begin to slide quickly downhill, and the young ones, who should have been given a decent interval in which to acclimatize themselves to the rigors of the pro football climate, will not be able to handle their responsibilities.
Watching the Saints during the exhibition season in 1967, the unsophisticated observer might have felt that this was a phenomenal young team with a real chance of placing high in its division. Nothing, of course, could have been farther from the truth. It was a typical expansion team, capable of winning two or three games on Sundays on which it caught a weak team minus key players due to injury and unimpressed to the point of somnolence. The Saints won three "for keeps" games last year. If they win that many this season Fears will have performed a minor miracle. They came to camp a week later than in 1967 and they have not mounted an all-out campaign to win exhibitions so they will be better conditioned for the regular season. They will have settled into the pattern of weak clubs moving up with the help of rookies.
This is another reason why exhibition games are not a valid yardstick by which to measure true competence. The set teams—Green Bay and Dallas, for example—must seriously look at only two or three rookies a year. The young teams with hordes of eager rookies must, on the other hand, examine them carefully, hoping to avoid the grievous mistake the Pittsburgh Steelers made 13 years ago when they let John Unitas go in order to keep Ted Marchibroda. This, of course, is an extreme example, but mistakes of the same kind on a lesser order can slow the development of a club by years.
Teams like the Saints, the Minnesota Vikings or the Cincinnati Bengals cannot be evaluated until they have advanced three or four games into the regular season and are playing with units that have had a reasonable time in which to learn each other's first names. During the exhibition season they may test two or three players at nearly every position; they may lose by horrendous scores while Paul Brown, say, scans the capabilities of a free agent from Saspamco Tech. They may lose by almost as horrendous scores during the season when the Saspamco Tech star has been replaced by a late reject from the San Diego Chargers, but it will no longer be because Paul, or whoever the coach might be, is forced into playing inferior personnel simply to discover if it is inferior.