The NFL is my seasonal mistress, an accepted obsession that eats up a majority of my time during the winter months. As such, much of my nerdism takes a backseat, or more so, makes a transformation, into the medium of football. Yes, fantasy football is one of many ways I satisfy my lust for the pig skin, but I am also a lover of the sport in general and love to analyze the game in all its elements. But I do get tired of the relentless commentary that has no guts due to being “politically correct”. So, I bring you PIC-6. Six “Politically-Incorrect” Topics from the NFL (see, it’s a play on words with an acronym…Pick-6, but it’s PIC-6? Clever, right?). Not every topic or subject I bring up is going to be controversial or trying to achieve shock value. I’m just going to be honest, and hopefully humorous, at the expense of trying to be drab and prude.
So today’s overarching topic is the preseason. Much like the NFL draft, the preseason has become a hype-engine that fuels fandom into the regular season. As is the case with anything that is over-hyped, an anti-hype group is formed and gains traction, and often times goes too far in the opposite direction. Such is the case here, where it is now a commonly known fact that the preseason is not only over-hyped, but it is pointless. I am now going to argue 6 points to prove that despite the fact that the NFL preseason is over-hyped, it is at the same time not a complete waste for viewership or the teams.
1. Trade Bait – With the preseason comes relentless backup QB talk. Second-string QBs often get more talk than the starters during preseason, either due to starter mediocrity or the starter being solidified at number 1. Nobody cares about Aaron Rodgers’ preseason because he is a proven talent, but what can his backup do? Bryan Hoyer looks off, but can Johnny Manziel take over? In many cases on teams where the starter is solidified, the backup is being showcased during the preseason as trade bait. These are some of the more interesting storylines during the preseason, as these players can flop or fly and really change the future of two franchises should the player become a franchise centerpiece or the draft picks traded end up being the cornerstone of another team. Such is the case with Kirk Cousins, Mark Sanchez, Case Keenum, and Ryan Mallett. Case Keenum and Ryan Mallett both failed in their respective showcases, failing to woo others teams in the way their respective upper management had hoped. Keenum ends up getting cut, while Mallett goes to the Texans for a conditional late-round draft pick. Cousins and Sanchez, on the other hand, impressed…perhaps a little too well, as both have put their stock up so high that no one is willing to take a flier on such high price tags. While butt-fumble has had his chance in the past, it is a crime that Cousins remains behind one of the worst cases of “well, we’re committed to this guy, so let’s blindly die by him” I have ever seen. Cousins clearly deserves a shot and it is a surprise that no other team has been willing to take a chance, even with a price tag that likely requires a 1st-round pick.
2. Cuts – If you think the preseason is pointless, tell that to the countless players that are on the bubble for making their team. Cuts down to the 53-man roster just took place, and a handful of bubble players are thanking their lucky stars or crossing their fingers their agent gets a call before being thrown on the practice squad. Take the Broncos, for example. Due to the talent evaluation brought on by the preseason, they determined they no longer needed past defensive staples like Kevin Vickerson or Super Bowl-starting safety Duke Ihenacho, because of the depth they evaluated at the position. But undrafted free agent rookie Isaiah Burse is getting an opportunity on the roster because of the versatility he showed in the passing game and return game. The evaluations during the preseason can turn heads and bring about budding stars that we scream for on Sunday mornings.
3. Scheme – The coordinator positions in football are constantly revolving doors. If completely unsuccessful, you get cut. If too successful, you get a starting gig somewhere else. Teams are in a constant exchange of coordinators on offense and defense. Often times these coordinators are introducing new schemes to rookies and veterans alike. The defense goes from a 3-4 to a 4-3. The offense goes from power blocking to the zone blocking scheme. Some are more complex, others are more simple. It requires an adjustment from the players, which can take time. The Giants are a perfect example of an offense needing to adjust to a vastly different scheme. They have looked like crap all preseason due to their inability to adjust to the new offensive coordinator. The failures may be a sign of things to come, or it may be just the learning experience they needed to move in the right direction. Time will tell in this case, but scheme is a good example of something that can look like crap in the preseason, but blossom in the regular season. Without the preseason, the team might be 6 games in the hole before they really figure everything out.
4. Rapport – “See? The preseason is pointless! Manning couldn’t hit anybody in the preseason and now he’s going off!” Yes, it’s called practice, and “practice” in real-time games can make the difference between a touchdown and a pick-6 in the regular season. When an offense or defense looks out of sorts in the preseason then awesome in the regular season, it is often due to scheme understanding and rapport building. A lot can be learned from mistakes, and there is no better place for mistakes than in the preseason. For example (though a poor example due to the unusual success), Manning decided to target newly-acquired wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders as much as possible during the 3rd preseason game, likely to develop some rapport with the receiver who had missed a good portion of the offseason due to injury. Not only did Manning and his receiver succeed at their goal, but they both learned that they are getting upgrades at their respective positions. Building rapport is a good thing, even if it doesn’t always show during the preseason.
5. Wins/Losses – The greatest argument for the pointlessness of the preseason is that the wins don’t count. True, but neither do the losses. This allows the teams to not necessarily focus on victory, but the aforementioned key points to developing a successful franchise. You simply cannot evaluate talent, scheme, or competency in practice as well as you can in a game. With the win/loss record not a concern, talent can be more adequately evaluated at the positions that are undecided. Schemes can be refined. Rapport can be built. And who cares if you lose along the way? The “pointless” win/loss record is actually why the preseason matters.
6. Devil’s Advocate – Having said all of the above, the win/loss really makes the games useless overall. This is understandable, especially for franchises that have established veterans that are only risking injury by playing in pointless games. The win/loss isn’t even necessarily a good judge for overall team talent. For example, the 2008 Lions went undefeated in the preseason before becoming the first team to go 0-16 during the regular season. The 1982 Redskins won the Super Bowl after going 0-4 in the preseason. However, both are rarities. Often times the preseason can reflect a team’s success. The Seahawks won the Super Bowl last year after going undefeated in the preseason. Vanilla schemes and 3rd and 4th string players can make win/loss records in the preseason enigmatic, but careful evaluation can actually produce relatively accurate predictions for the upcoming season. For example, the Cowboys’ defense is going to blow.