- Tomorrow night is a big night in the ‘ol basement podcast studio. It is the annual rite of passage in mid-August where Tim, Kevin and I argue about the importance of the preseason in the NFL. We all agree there is some importance, but there always seems to be a line separating where we come out on the meaning of each of these preseason contests. I won’t completely ruin which of us battles along which lines, but I do think we share at least a few common beliefs about what exactly is going on here...and the recent preseason matchup between the Cleveland Browns and the Washington Redskins can be helpful in underlining those common beliefs.
- First and foremost, Dwayne Haskins didn’t “throw two interceptions in his first pro game.” I read that a number of times since last Thursday and I think it’s one of the dumbest things I have read in the last week. To be clear, preseason games are glorified practices. The results of these glorified practices are meaningless for postseason consideration. The stats collected during these glorified practices are not included on anyone’s Hall of Fame plaque, or even the back of a football card. (If your preseason stats are on the back of your card, your career was likely very short-lived...to non-existent.) So far, Dwayne Haskins has never played in a pro game. His professional stat sheet is still spotless. He did NOT have an exceptional practice, and looked VERY much like a rookie. (
What do you expect, it was his first pro game...no, wait, that is not what I’m trying to say.) Now that we have gotten cozy with the idea that these preseason contests are NOT pro games, let’s talk about:
- Game conditions. Let’s start splitting hairs, shall we? Given we all agree that nothing meaningful is on the line in terms of the outcomes of these games, just exactly how well do preseason games approximate “game conditions?” I’ll grant you: teams don’t get 60 minutes of legit NFL-caliber action out of their preseason games. You will see a veteran or two pull up from a monster hit on a fellow veteran on the other side of the ball, and you might even see a few more wrap-ups without the takedowns we will get in September, but hey, it ain’t the Pro Bowl, either. I think this is a decent first step in making my argument, which is that you can still collect good data about players by placing them in these preseason games. A preseason game is far more competitive and physical than the Pro Bowl. That doesn’t help me too much though, because the playoffs are also not on the line in that game. Here’s something you don’t see in a preseason game though: red jerseys on quarterbacks. That’s a major game condition. If you step onto the field for a preseason game, it could be your last time on the field for a long time. The coach isn’t in the backfield calling the plays, which puts the quarterback and the middle linebacker in a real game condition. When the ball snaps, the play won’t be whistled dead until the play is over, unlike in practice when contact alone can mean the end of a play. These are the kinds of game conditions that you want to practice to the best of your abilities. Haskins needs practice calling plays in the huddle—very few college quarterbacks actually call plays anymore—and our linebackers calling the plays for the defense need practice being heard on the field. Knees have to hit the ground, catches are back to being defined as—let’s not go here, and penalties change the next playcall from both sidelines. In these ways, preseason games do offer both coaches and players a taste of things to come in the regular season. Another kind of game condition:
- Situational conditions. In a two-minute drill on the August gridiron, the clock moves at the exact same pace as it will in the regular season. Decision-making by the coaches and the quarterback needs to be the same as what it will be in the regular season. Getting out-of-bounds stops the clock. Getting your offense to the line of scrimmage for a quick spike or for a hurry-up call works the same way. Players who do stupid things in August during a two-minute drill might not cost their team a real game, but it is one step on the journey to doing just that. After all, if and when a quarterback takes too much time in the two-minute drill during the season, you KNOW people are going to remember them tripping up in the preseason. I would even argue that giving players a chance NOT to commit a stupid penalty that bails out the other team, or to NOT jump offsides when the opposing quarterback is using a tempting cadence are both things that have more value in a preseason game than an ordinary practice. By the time we get to this part of the argument we are starting to say words like:
- “But who’s actually on the field?” I get it. At least in the Pro Bowl, pretty much everyone on the field is an actual player in the league. The preseason is chock full of players that will not be playing on Sundays this fall. If you look above to the things I have listed out—or at least to most of them—we are talking about things that have to do with a guy all on his own, regardless of who is lining up against him. Pre-snap decision-making, penalty avoidance, saving as much time on the clock as possible and calling plays on the field (quarterbacks and linebackers) are all skills that have to be perfected in some semblance of actual game conditions, and are not entirely dependent on what other people do. That said, let’s talk about those guys not likely to make the league:
- Jobs are on the line. We can split hairs all day about what we should and shouldn’t care about—coaches are making roster decisions based on what they see on film in these preseason games. That is enough juice to make the squeeze pretty darn worthwhile. For every over-the-top prediction one might make about a fourth- or fifth-string running back, there are over-the-top predictions that are likely true about 5th and 6th and 7th round draft picks. I don’t think Jimmy Moreland is playing any unimportant downs right now. All it takes is one guy like Jimmy to change the flavor of a preseason game. His effort, for example, will make every second of tape more valuable for every other player on the field at the same time. Getting back to Dwayne Haskins though...a guy who “many” expect to make the team (haha). No matter what you saw last Thursday night, his pro career is not off to a rocky, turnover-filled start, because it hasn’t officially started yet. Injury-free football that gets the coaches solid tape to make evaluations is the best we can hope for in the preseason, and so far, the Redskins have done well in that regard. I am at the front of the line of people who want the preseason radically changed from what it is right now, based on both player safety as well as the ridiculous cost owners charge for preseason games. Until that happens, or until the Redskins start winning titles, I will continue to be a proponent of the NFL conducting some level of meaningful competition ahead of the regular season. (If the Redskins were perennial winners, I might advocate for less risk to those trophy-hoisting players, so From a play-to-play standpoint, that is what we are getting, and that is what we need. Now we can just skip to arguing about why Tim and I care so much about how little Kevin cares about preseason.
Despite what you see written in crawlers on ESPN, CBS and other sports networks, no actual football games have been played.