All coverage about the NFL preseason includes one giant caveat: the games don’t count. Teams win or lose, but the results have no effect on the regular season, let alone the playoffs. This is true; the games don’t count in the standings. Teams can win more games in the preseason than they do in the regular season. But the games matter very much for other reasons, and here’s why.
1. Shaking off the rust
Football is a tough sport. Even high-paid professional athletes need time to rest and heal, which is what the offseason is for. Time off, however, slips the body out of playing shape. It’s no longer ready to make a block or take a hit. Quarterbacks and receivers need to find their timing again. Running backs and linemen need to re-familiarize themselves with each other’s tendencies. Everyone needs to work on technique and specific situations that happen during the course of a game. Training camp is for figuring that stuff out. Preseason games show you where you stand.
2. Recovering from injuries
Many players end the season on injured reserve, with something more serious than the usual bumps and bruises. For them, the offseason becomes all about rehab. Come August, they may be healthy (ish), but they’re also behind, having missed the offseason program their teammates went through. Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is a good example. His rookie preseason put him in position to excel as a rookie. And he did, leading the team to the playoffs and making the playoffs. A serious knee injury required offseason surgery and extensive recovery time leading up to and through the preseason. Missing all that time and practice, he wasn’t the same player in his second season.
3. Getting rookies up to speed
Pro football is a much harder game than college football. The players are bigger, faster, stronger… heck, they’re even better trash-talkers. The most talented of rising rookies still need time to adjust to the pro game. Just look at Johnny Manziel’s less than stellar performance in his last outing (7 of 16 for 65 yards with 1 TD and 1 middle finger against a lackluster Redskins defense). There’s a reason many rookies don’t start on day one, or even season one. Turns out the Johnny Football Show has been put on hold too.
4. Auditioning players for jobs
We know Calvin Johnson, Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson will make their respective rosters and, barring injury, be out there come opening day. They’re among the best in the game. Many more players are fighting for starting positions and roster spots. Preseason games are where these battles play out. It’s one thing to show your worth on the practice field, and quite another to show it on the playing field.
5. Coaches seeing what they have
Coaches need to see their players in a game environment. And preseason is the closest they can get to the real thing. Who’s gained a step, and who’s lost a step? A practice at three-quarters speed won’t necessarily reveal this. But a game at full speed will. Whether filling out the roster, or adjusting the playbook to the talent available, preseason games are critical preparation for the season ahead.
6. New coaches installing a playbook
New head coaches often have to start from scratch. That means installing a playbook, or at least big chunks of one — no small feat. The plays may be similar, but run from different formations with different player assignments. Offenses (and defenses) can have a lot of variables. New coaches work through a lot of this in the offseason. But only when preseason rolls around do they see their team in actual game situations.
7. Building fan excitement
Fans have to ramp up for the season just as players do. Preseason provides that opportunity. It also allows fans who could otherwise only watch on TV to see a game in person. As a former wide-eyed kid who went to his first NFL game during the preseason, I still remember the excitement. Regular season NFL tickets are hard to come by in many cities, never mind expensive. Preseason exposes more people to football, helping to strengthen the fanbase.
Norm Elrod likes sports and other sanctioned forms of craziness.