By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) Some years ago, “exhibition games” became “The Preseason.”
The former term was correct, and still is. That’s all these are, in the truest sense, as something resembling NFL football is on display, and we are able to appreciate some of what is going on, mildly interested in the proceedings. Each city has its respective team on exhibit – an exercise really more like the Boats & RV show or Comic-Con than the reality of September.
Yet the portentous, turgid, latter title of this silliness seems to fool us all again every year, despite the fact that it’s merely Orwellian Newspeak. I fall for it, too, as my readiness for football builds through the swampy days of practice, awaiting the first thing that even looks like a game. We’re helplessly stupid about something that is just terrible on every level.
Season-ticket holders are extorted into paying full price for the two games at home, with no market for offloading them to defray costs. Players don’t get game checks for participating, either, so it’s a perfectly cynical production – performers who don’t want to be there, in front of people who didn’t want to have to pay to see them.
Also, each game allows for multiple spins of what has become the NFL’s Injury Wheel of Fortune. Impacts for the sake of dollars before anything matters, so step right up and let’s try your luck! Torn ACL? Winner! How ‘bout a fourth concussion for the guy whose contract you just extended? Give the wheel a crank and see where it lands…a broken clavicle! High-ankle sprains for everybody! Remember that first-round draft pick? He’s out for the year. And so is your kicker. Thanks for playing.
The broadcasts are always substandard, handled by local affiliates trying their gosh-darnedest to make it look like a network truck is parked out back. National play-by-play guys are happy to pick up an extra check sitting next to whichever not-unpopular former player is capable enough to parrot talking points written by the PR staff. Everybody is either “ready for a breakout season,” “in the best shape of his life,” “the talk of training camp,” “just a good football player,” or “really working hard.” If the analyst refers to someone as “struggling,” it probably means that player has either already been cut, or that he died months ago.
This season even the officials are horrendous. The current labor strife has necessitated these pudgy replacement bozos, who seem to have been instructed to wave their arms and exchange odd, uncomfortable facial expressions with each other. Looking at some, I’m surprised the whistle is even jammed into the proper orifice.
Then there’s the whole Saturday-night, 7:00 kickoff part of it. We older, married guys tend to be out at such times, having set the DVR (some of us even adding the 30-minute time extension, as if it could possibly matter, then feeling miserable about our lives for doing so), having been seated at a restaurant, and STILL being distracted by the game on a visible screen. We can’t help it. It’s terribly rude, is utterly illogical, but we’re incapable of resisting because we’re hard wired to look at a TV with our team on it, even if the quarterback is the hapless fourth-stringer from the Canadian league. Then we look down to see that we’ve been staring at meaningless activity for long enough that four of the six escargot have been eaten.
After paying attention to that part of an exhibition game for that long, two garlic-soaked snails is all I deserve, of course. NFL exhibition football induces that kind of contrite self-awareness.
Still, I’ll reserve some blame for HBO’s Hard Knocks, too, which follows these pointless affairs like each one is the Cuban Missile Crisis, over-amplifying end-of-roster battles and petty squabbles with its patented combination of super-slow-motion and grim voiceovers. Their documentary genius can cause us to forget that none of this – for better or worse, in activity or outcome — says anything about how good any team is actually going to be.
We all understand the apparent need for the game-speed simulation that helps players, coaches and officials prepare, always hearing that weeks of practice against teammates are not enough. The games, they say, are important dress-rehearsals that need to be.
But some necessary evils are clearly more evil than others.