What Really Matters in the NFL Preseason?
We are halfway through the NFL preseason. At times, it does not produce the highest quality of football for fans. There has been talk for years of shortening the preseason, but I do not see it happening for a very simple reason. In the span of about a month, teams have get down from around 90 players to 53 by the start of the regular season. Obviously, this is not easy. Whether we as fans like it or not, coaches need as much time as they can get to evaluate talent and fill out the back end of their rosters in the best way possible. Trust me, every coach will end up needing all 53 guys on his roster during the season. So, there is value to the preseason. There are also a couple things that really matter in the preseason and a couple things that mean absolutely nothing. Here is a look at each starting with the two things I feel matter most in the preseason.
Injuries- The one thing players, coaches and fans will all agree on is that they all hope everyone comes out of training camp and the preseason healthy. Unfortunately, it rarely works that way. Maybe the most glaring example of this was Michael Vick in 2003. His leg was broken in a preseason game in 2003. Vick was coming off of a Pro Bowl season. With one play, the Falcons went from Super Bowl contender to 5-11 football team. While I do not think this preseason has produced anything that impactful, the Bengals, Patriots, Broncos and Texans have all lost multiple starters for extended periods of time. The league has been decimated by injuries along the offensive and defensive line. J.J. Watt is the biggest name to be bit by the preseason injury bug, but he should be back by the end of September. Names like Patriots running back Dion Lewis and Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert may not be so lucky.
Special Teams- When I talk about filling out the back end of roster, special teams is crucial. Guys like Terrell Davis and James Harrison made their first NFL rosters as special teamers on the kick and punt return teams. They may both be bound for Canton one day. I cannot tell you who will parlay solid special teams play in the 2016 preseason into a roster spot, and eventually a successful career. I am not that much of a genius, but there will be someone. This is another reason I detest talk of eliminating the kickoff. Also, struggles on special teams are more likely to carry over into the regular season. The Steelers kicking woes began in the preseason last year. They ended up employing five different kickers during the 2015 season. Now, on to the two things I feel fans and media overhype during the preseason and are meaningless.
Backup quarterback lighting up vanilla defenses- Every year, the world falls for a quarterback that looks like a million bucks in the preseason. In previous years, guys like Brian Hoyer and Tarvaris Jackson have been preseason darlings. How did it work out for those guys? This year the preseason darling is Dak Prescott of the Cowboys. While it is difficult not to be impressed by a rookie mid round draft pick completing 81.5% of his passes for four touchdowns and no interceptions in his first two tastes of live NFL game action, be careful. Just four months ago, there were a handful of teams who wanted to draft Prescott at tight end. This is not uncommon for athletic quarterbacks who were not in pro-style offenses in college. Now, in late August after his stellar start to the preseason, there are actually people out there who think he should start over Tony Romo in Dallas. Keep in mind anything a backup quarterback does in the preseason is usually against backup defenders, vanilla defenses who do not blitz, or both. Thus, it always amazes me the way people go gaga when a guy goes off in the preseason. Does anyone actually believe that a guy can go from possibly being drafted as a tight end to replacing Tony Romo as the starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys in four months? Good God, I hope not, but it sure looks that way. Granted, the good news is Prescott appears capable of holding down the fort should the often injured Romo get banged up again, but when healthy there is no comparison under any circumstances where Prescott is a better option than Romo.
Wins and losses- The single biggest difference between preseason and regular season football is the only things that matter in the regular season mean absolutely nothing in the preseason. Look, winning is always better than losing. However, 99% of the time. The only thing that the score of preseason game proves is which team had better third string players. The Patriots have had just two winning records in the preseason since 2008. They have made the playoffs all but one of those years. The one year they did not make the playoffs their record was 11-5. With starters playing a maximum of three quarters, and usually less than that, preseason win/loss records are a horrendous barometer of regular season team success or failure.
So, as you enjoy the rest of the NFL preseason, watch it with more of a critical and skeptical eye. We are under three weeks to real football. Keep counting down the days folks!