Rejoice! Our beloved Washington Redskins are off to another strong start this preseason, posting back-to-back wins over the Browns and Lions. Aficionados will note that the 2-0 mark raised Washington's record to an impressive 12-2 in preseason play over the last three-plus seasons.
That excellence hasn't even come close to translating to wins that actually count.
I have a laundry list of disclaimers for any preseason success (or failure!). Limited playbooks. Lots of personnel who won't be NFL players a month from now. Sometimes working on specific things rather than focusing on playing to win at all costs.
As long as a team is at least reasonably competent—limiting penalties, ball-handling mistakes, blown assignments, and missed tackles—the only thing that truly matters is the health of the roster. We all know how that's going for the Redskins so far.
The real question, then, is: Does the preseason matter as a predictor of success?
Much has been said and written about the fact that Joe Gibbs' Redskins went 0-4 during the 1982 preseason. Once the real games began, that Washington team lost only one game all year en route to a victory in Super Bowl XVII.
Yet, the ‘82 Redskins are the only team in NFL history to pair a winless preseason with a championship. Gibbs' dominant 1991 title team at least went 1-3. His 1987 champs went 3-1.
Let's look at recent history, dating back to the Redskins' 1999 team that won the NFC East. Here's preseason performance alongside the regular-season record that followed, with an asterisk indicating playoff seasons.
1999 3-1 10-6*
2000 3-1 8-8
2001 1-3 8-8
2002 4-1 7-9
2003 1-3 5-11
2004 3-2 6-10
2005 1-3 10-6*
2006 0-4 5-11
2007 2-2 9-7*
2008 3-2 8-8
2009 1-3 4-12
2010 2-2 6-10
2011 3-1 5-11
2012 3-1 10-6*
2013 4-0 3-13
2014 3-1 4-12
In those 16 seasons, the Redskins have finished above .500 in the preseason nine times. They've done so in the regular season only four times—making the playoffs on each occasion, as it so happens.
In their four playoff years during that stretch, the Redskins had a winning preseason record only twice. They went 1-3 and 2-2 the other two years.
Most peculiarly, Washington has posted the same number of preseason victories (7) as regular-season victories over the last two years, despite preseason being one-fourth as long as the regular schedule.
Breaking it down further, preseason winning percentage was substantially better than regular-season winning percentage in seven seasons, while regular-season performance substantially exceeded preseason performance three times. Preseason success and regular-season success were roughly comparable in only six of those 16 seasons.
The easy conclusion, then, is that, for all the reasons I mentioned at the top, preseason tells us almost nothing.
But what about this: Isn't there something to be said for momentum? Even if the wins don't count, isn't there at least some kind of benefit to playing well in preseason from a psychological / chemistry perspective? Isn't that something that can carry over into the beginning of the regular season?
Let's look at that list again, and, instead, focus only on the first four games of each regular year:
1999 3-1 3-1
2000 3-1 2-2
2001 1-3 0-4
2002 4-1 2-2
2003 1-3 3-1
2004 3-2 1-3
2005 1-3 3-1
2006 0-4 2-2
2007 2-2 3-1
2008 3-2 3-1
2009 1-3 2-2
2010 2-2 2-2
2011 3-1 3-1
2012 3-1 2-2
2013 4-0 1-3
2014 3-1 1-3
As it turns out, this list simply underscores the earlier point. There are only four years in which the number of preseason wins matched the number of wins over the first four games of the season. There are only five other years in which the win total was even within one win, despite the fact that there's a decent mathematical likelihood of being within one victory, simply due to the small number of games involved each year.
The ultimate conclusion will come as no surprise to downtrodden Redskins fans: There is no meaningful correlation between good preseason performance and regular-season success.
For those of us who are trying latch on to some flimsy shred of hope amid a preseason filled with injuries and awkward, much-scrutinized quotes from the starting quarterback, we can find no such solace in these hollow victories.
Even if the Redskins win the "dress rehearsal" (Do you like that term? I just thought of it!!!) against the Ravens, a three- or four-win preseason will do little to assure anyone that this team will be good come September 13th.