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Does the NFL Preseason Matter? Assessing the Pros and Cons of Football’s Offseason Sideshow

Does the NFL Preseason Matter? Assessing the Pros and Cons of Football’s Offseason Sideshow

The National Football League’s preseason has always been a joke. No-name journeymen take up most of the playing time, starters make brief, unimpressive appearances, and none of it counts.

And yet, now, more than ever, the audience is starting to turn away from the NFL’s pre-action action: the Hall of Fame Game on Sunday was the worst-rated opener in years, and the whole exhibition schedule has been getting less popular by the year. Now, this is all relative to the regular season, which in 2013 produced 19 of the top 20 most-watched programs on television before the playoffs even started, but still, by football’s standards, the numbers are low.

With ailing ratings in mind, now is as good a time as any to ask: does the NFL preseason matter? For the fans, for sports bettors, for fantasy football-obsessed couch trolls, for anyone? Is it important, and should we watch it?

Read on for a breakdown of the major arguments for and against paying attention to football’s annual equivalent of the rehearsal dinner, and check out our complete coverage of the NFL’s 2014-2015 season on our NFL page, which includes previews of the Cowboys and Seahawks seasons, as well as much more.

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Does the NFL Preseason Matter?

Does the NFL Preseason Matter?

Why the NFL Preseason Matters

Let’s start positive. After all, it’s summer. The sun is shining. Players are wearing NFL jerseys, and that’s exciting after being left to watch baseball, baseball, and a tiny bit of golf.

debuts

Rookie Debuts

[sc:NFL240banner ]Things get sad for NFL fans in the days after the Super Bowl every February. It’s so long until meaningful grid iron action returns. One of the most exciting elements of the offseason that keeps them engaged, however, is the future. Rookies are drafted. Former draft picks continue to develop in the interests of cracking the starting squad.

And all that comes into focus as the preseason gets going. In the preseason, we find out just exactly how Johnny Manziel will stack up against incumbent start Brian Hoyer. And the addition of the big-league lights (and cameras) can often start to define a player. By the time a team’s rookies have made it through training camp and the first three preseason games, they’ve started to define where they could fit on the team. And that’s exciting to watch, especially since rookies tend to get a lot of playing time in these inconsequential games.

week 3

Starters Play

If rookies playing is good, starters hitting the field to play football is great. As fans, this is what it’s all about. Watching Eli Manning try and figure out a new offense, or the first on-field throws from Robert Griffin III to DeSean Jackson is more than worth slogging through the overall meaningless of the exercise. These are the playmakers that will make or break the season for their teams, and the preseason can be an illuminating look at where they’re at today.

The downside is teams vary how much they play their starters in these games. Almost all teams will give their starters at least the first two quarters of week three, which also happens to be the only week that NFL coaches fully game plan for their opponents (coaches need to shake the rust off too!), but even that isn’t a guarantee.

In preseason weeks 1 and 2, a player like Manning could play anywhere from a single series to an entire quarter. If anything, this adds up to: watch week three for the starters.

Anything could happen in any preseason game, but at least in week 3 you’re watching players whose names you’ve heard of.

injuries

Injuries

It’s a miracle human beings agree to play football given the ease with which players can get hurt. With 350 pound monsters falling into piles on every play, it’s no wonder NFL players are firmly against extending the regular season or adding any action to any part of the schedule. It’s already a minefield of possibly-career-ending slips and breaks.

Still, the injury storyline is an important one to any team’s success, and the preseason is all part of that. For that reason, as fans we have to pay attention just to keep up on the bad news, because it sure as shit does matter: in the 2013 preseason, Jeremy Maclin, Michael Crabtree, and Percy Harvin were all seriously injured. Missing one of those All-Star caliber ball-catchers hurts a team in a single game, but for the season?

And yet, this hardly feels like a suitable reason to watch a preseason game. It matters, sure, but you wouldn’t watch for it. Instead, you sit at home, clutching your Aaron Rodgers jersey, and praying that the unthinkable doesn’t happen…

Why the NFL Preseason Doesn’t Matter

At a certain point, you had to know this article was going to get negative. It was hard to keep it positive even as long as I did.

records

Records Don’t Matter

 

Let’s start with a commonly asked question: is there a correlation between the teams that do well in the preseason and teams that do well in the regular season or playoffs?

In short: no, no and no. In fact, if there is a correlation, it might be that teams that do well in the preseason are less likely to be successful during the regular season. The 2006 Colts went 0-4 in the preseason and then showed they remembered how to win with a 12-4 record in the regular season before winning the Super Bowl. The 2008 Detroit Lions went 4-0, and that was the last winning they did, stinking their way to an 0-16 regular season record.

Indeed, the teams that are set to be contenders in a given season tend to be the ones who are stocked with quality veterans and players they know are good. Coaches treat the preseason as a training and testing ground for their rosters, and if they can avoid it will keep their known stars off the field as much possible. All told, this makes for an upside-down world in the preseason, as good teams rest their best players and bad teams (with lots of young draft picks) engage a more competitive environment as better (but less experienced) talent stays on the field longer.

back ups

Back Ups Play More

If the number of marquee rookies playing in preseason games is a reason to watch and care about the games, the number of entirely non-marquee players playing in these games is a reason not to.

In week 4 of the preseason, it gets particularly grizzly. Starters never play. Coaches are game-planning for Week 1 of the regular season. This is a true exhibition week, as the decisions being made are around the bottom of the 53-player roster. Want to see what happens in the competition to be third-string back up for a special teams position? Tune in.

Generally, people don’t, which is why Week 4 of the preseason does not appear on national television. For a league with the clout of the NFL, a league with its own station it’s so popular, not televising games nationally is perhaps the most damning evidence of all. Week 4 of the preseason well and truly sucks: don’t watch it.

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Weird Rules

This might just be a reason to watch the preseason, but probably not. More than just a training ground for players, the preseason is a time when the league experiments as well. In 2014, point-after touchdowns will be attempted from the 38-yard line. This is a rule the NFL is playing with adding to the regular season to improve what is essentially an extended commercial break in its game coverage.

There will be other rule changes as well. This will be the first time referees will be calling the new rules against defensive backs, and clamping down on excessive celebration (even more).

All told, it makes for a pretty sloppy mess that has almost little to do with what will happen when the real thing kicks off September 4th. The NFL Preseason matters, sure, but oh so much less than it should, and comparatively far less than any of the other major North American leagues’ preseasons. It’s an eyesore that needs to be addressed, and other than delivering us a first look at the players and schemes that we will see weeks later, there’s not much to see here.

Thankfully, the league continues to actively consider changes to the preseason.

But it’s fair to assume those aren’t coming very soon. In the meantime, hold out for the real thing and create a betting account now to start loading up on the NFL futures bets you’ll find in our sportsbook.

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Tom
Written by Tom

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