Preseason is important for the NFL. There are some very good arguments that preseason increases the risk of injury in meaningless games. I can’t argue against that point, but the importance of preseason is the same reason why the NFL hasn’t scrapped the whole thing yet.
Preseason offers teams an opportunity to evaluate a roster that is nearly twice the size that it will be in week one. This is one heck of a process, and if you break down all of the moving pieces during this time it is quite impressive. Conditioning, installation, execution, film study, player evaluation, etc…it all has to happen fairly quickly with a group that is, again, twice as large as what you will dress on Sundays. Guys who are fresh out of college, ten year veterans, and everything in between will have to come together during this period quickly to be competitive in their first "real" game.
Preseason games offer an opportunity for coaches to face outside competition to get veterans a few reps and to try out other players in various packages. In this "competitive practice" type of atmosphere you will see a lot of strange things happening in preseason games that wouldn’t typically happen in the regular season. What matters here is that the coaches have an opportunity to look at their roster more closely with as much variety as the game will allow. Two-minute drills, four-minute drills, burning the clock, bouncing back after a turnover, goal line defense, goal line offense, and the list goes on and on. The more your team is exposed to, the more packages and personnel substitutions you will be able to make, enhancing your ability to evaluate the roster. In this regard, the scoreboard is important. It determines your circumstances which in turn influences your play calling.
Outside of that, the outcome of the game does not matter.
We’ve heard it time and time again, "Preseason games do not matter." Well, that’s kind of true, but for the reasons mentioned above you can see how they do matter to an extent. To the coaches, they matter. To the players trying to make the team, they matter. They don’t matter in the sense that most fans believe they should matter, which is the win/loss column, the box score, and the general vibe of the game. While a poor or great performance in preseason can be foreshadowing things to come, it can also mean squat. That’s the often confusing and most frustrating thing for fans to deal with.
The common assumption is that "the starters will play _______ quarters during game _____." Again, not true. Starters that have nagging injuries they would normally play through will not be playing in a preseason game at all. It’s easier to say how much the starters will be playing to add more significance to that playing time, but it really doesn’t matter. Many veterans will not be playing all out even if they do take the field. Some will, of course, but others will be going 80% because they are trying to avoid injuries and are saving their best efforts for when they believe it matters most. There are guys who go all out every time, there are guys who go all out when it matters, and there are guys who go all out when they are paid to do so. These personnel issues make preseason tough to really gauge a teams’ competitiveness. Guys who are safe in their positions don’t necessarily have to impress, as long as they don’t look horrid. Remember, it’s for the coaches to evaluate their rosters, not for the fans to evaluate the team.
Another huge issue for the fans is the play calling. I’ve read the word "vanilla" in so many articles that it’s beginning to make me sick. I actually like vanilla; it’s a real flavor and can be good all by itself. That’s not the case with preseason play calling, so I’ll go with the word bland instead. Bland play calling by offenses, not particularly creative blitz packages by the defenses, and coaches trying things they wouldn’t otherwise try make the preseason games get completely sideways at times. It can be frustrating for fans, or lead them to make SB predictions before the first snap has taken place.
You want more evidence?
Game three of the preseason is often given the most significance of all of the preseason games, which I would like to point out pales in comparison to any one regular season game. A lot has been made of Cam Newton’s performance during this game because it was not particularly good. Never mind that the play calling has been bland, we want to see scores! Through three quarters Cam Newton had the ball for a whopping fifteen minutes…let that sink in. A lot of that was struggling to complete drives, and a lot was defensive scoring. Remember, defense scores and then they get right back on the field. In fifteen minutes Cam Newton put up 99 yards and 0 touchdowns, with 2 runs for 20 yards.
In that very same all-important game three with a better time of possession, Russell Wilson put up 126 yards with 0 touchdowns and 2 interceptions; Eli Manning put up 83 yards with 0 touchdowns and 0 interceptions (completed 40% of his passes); Josh Freeman put up 59 yards with 0 touchdowns and 0 interceptions (completed less than 40% of his passes); and Matt Ryan put up 138 yards with 0 touchdowns and 0 interceptions.
Do we believe that this will accurately reflect their in-season play (we can hope)? So when you find yourself being caught up in the hype regarding preseason, just remember it only really matters to the coaches and players. No team is defined in week three of preseason, no one makes it to the playoffs because of that game, and no SB champs are crowned before the season and playoff games are played. Are you ready for week one yet?