Why the NFL preseason matters
Thursday night, when the ball is kicked into the air at Gillette Stadium at 7:05 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, our six-month football detox ends. For the next 26 weeks, NFL football will be a part of our lives, and that’s a good thing for everyone.
Even though the preseason doesn’t count, as evaluators, it helps us dig deeper under the hood of teams to better understand their strengths and weaknesses. For the last four months, we have heard and read all the predictions about players and teams as they danced around in their T-shirts and shorts, which isn’t football.
As Vince Lombardi once said, “Football isn’t a contact sport; it’s a collision sport. Dancing is a contact sport.” Once the pads are introduced and collisions ensue, then the game changes, the players change, and our evaluations change. So starting tomorrow, get those erasers ready.
Many believe the preseason is meaningless. Records in the preseason might be meaningless, but how teams perform in certain situations can indicate future problems. Looking at the box score, scoreboard or a player's individual statistics isn’t going to help you when betting Week 1.
For example, last preseason Sam Ehlinger and Justin Fields led the NFL in QBR during the summer. Ehlinger had a 147.8 rating, and Fields wasn’t far behind with a 133.1. Neither quarterback played to those numbers or anywhere near their preseason success.
For any quarterback with limited experience, preseason should be a blast as the game will never be this easy. The coverages are not challenging, none of the good pass rushers play, and the game is so slow. It’s pitch and catch time, and if a quarterback can run around, it’s even easier. Malik Willis led the AFC in rushing yards and had the longest run last preseason, and we all know how badly he played once the real games began.
Lance McCutcheon of the Rams was the leader in receiving yardage with 259, and he ended up playing 56 plays the whole season for the Rams. Preseason individual numbers often do not translate to the regular season. Therefore, let's not count on a player making a great play in the fourth quarter as a player who can help the team win.
At times, team stats do translate. For example, the Giants led the NFL in the preseason with 102 passes completed, and their offense showed signs of being able to throw the ball throughout the season. As a comparison, in 2021, the Giant completed 55 passes during the summer. The completions indicated the Giants' offensive execution and design were improving. That improvement translated into the opener and the rest of the season.
Washington did not create one turnover all last preseason, so why were we surprised when they ranked 26th in creating defensive turnovers during the regular season? Sean Payton has been complaining about the Broncos' penalties last year, and in the preseason Denver had 23 penalties in three games. The year before, they had just eight under Vic Fangio.
The preseason is a time to repair and evaluate. All teams won’t be perfect. Preseason is like a first draft of any written work. It’s garbage. Then once through, the editing process begins and the fine-tuning. After changing a word here and there, it improves. From the start to the finished product, the work formulates the pathway. The rewrites, the changes in structure and story arch, all become unexpectedly different from the original idea. The writer doesn’t find the rhythm of the words until the keyboard produces letters.
Football teams are much like this. Until the team practices, takes shape, makes mistakes, and learns from mistakes, the identity of the team isn’t formed. All teams are a work in progress. As handicappers, we must determine the progress. We cannot assume it will happen because it was only preseason.
Handicappers must use preseason as a learning tool. There are lessons in the statistics. It’s not to be dismissed as “just a preseason game.” The prevailing lazy attitude isn’t going to help break down the season, particularly in Week 1. If it’s on tape, it’s worth studying. By the way, Buffalo last season ranked 29th in the NFL in preseason turnover takeaway and started the year giving the ball to the Rams four times. Is that happenstance? You decide.
So, instead of going all “Dickie Vitale” (we all pray he is beating his throat cancer) on a rookie making a great one-handed catch, or the long run, take a step back and analyze Week 1 stats. Identify problems—from turnovers to penalties to not completing passes. Don’t make any judgments yet. Then examine Week 2 in those areas and see if there is improvement or continued problems. If the problems continue, then look towards the head coach, as he isn’t tuned in to the issues.
Once we identify all 32 teams and their issues, we then use the final stats to determine any patterns. Nothing is final or fatal in our analysis. We are in the concerned area—not a full alert. Once we can conclude a pattern, we can then use this in our week-to-week handicapping process.
Most importantly, don’t look at any local or national media coverage to divulge the patterns. Make those assessments on your own. If the head coach or coordinator is asked about the patterns or speaks about them (more often than not they won’t), then the answers indicate they are at least aware of the problems. Like any problem that needs to be fixed, admitting the problem exists is the first step.
For me, I cannot wait to watch the games, break down the numbers. You will never hear me say “It’s just preseason.”