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Ah, the preseason. Where the playsheet isn’t real and the points really, truly don’t matter. For any NFL fan worth their salt, we all make a big show out of getting excited for the Hall of Fame game, the official start of the exhibition schedule. In reality, who among us stuck out the Jaguars-Raiders tilt until the final whistle? If you get paid to write about football, you don’t count.
Starting last season, the NFL preseason schedule was thankfully reduced to only three games. What we as viewers got back was an extra week of not having to watch roster bubble quarterbacks float uncatchable passes to receivers picked up off the high school field next door to Lambeau. While at-home viewers and some starting players (looking at you, Aaron Rodgers, you capital douchecanoe) may be relieved at fewer times having to run through the charade of getting dressed and warmed up, taking three snaps against Pro Bowl-caliber competition, and sitting on the bench for three hours, I would argue something else. Roster bubble players and non-starters, who benefit most from these simulated game environments, are the ones who seem to matter the least to the average fan.
But we’ll get into that in a bit. Before we hit the fundamental question of what we learn in August, it might be prudent to briefly cover what the preseason doesn’t teach us:
- If a team will be good or not
- Who will be a quality fantasy football starter
- What the new (head coach/starting WR/offensive scheme/draft pick) will look like come the regular season
To wit: The Baltimore Ravens now own a 21-game preseason winning streak since 2016, the longest in NFL history. This has netted the franchise exactly one playoff win. Preseason wins and losses, again, matter about as much as telling Antonio Cromartie to use a condom.
As for fantasy relevance, you can’t gauge whether somebody’s ADP is spot-on over five carries or four targets, no matter how much of an expert you claim to be. Lastly, as we all know, coaches are famously paranoid and play everything close to the vest for game scenarios, so they won’t be trotting out the entire playbook, new concepts, or using their new shiny free-agent safety to their full potential in August. Don’t hold your breath.
That said, we can glean a handful of things from the warm-up games.
New Uniforms and Rule Changes
Pretty simple. No fewer than 14 teams have shiny new uniform additions this season, including the return of Pat Patriot to Foxborough. No matte helmets, though, sadly. Bring back matte helmets! As for rules, the biggie this year is the playoff overtime change, courtesy of The Greatest Playoff Game of All Time last season: both teams will receive a possession.
Injuries and Availability
Injuries are tricky. The longer you’re a fan, the more content you consume, the more podcasts you listen to, and ultimately the more you think you know about how injuries work in the NFL. News flash: you’ve never torn your ACL or had seven fractured ribs. Even if you have, you’re not a professional athlete. I stepped on a Lego last summer and couldn’t bathe myself for three days. Trying to figure out the performance level or availability of any given player is up to the team (and to a lesser extent, sadly, the player), and the best indicator of that we have is preseason action. Is the player on the field? That’s a good sign. Are they not? It could be a bad sign. Unfortunately, it’s kind of a binary result.
Depth Charts, Backups, and Unsung Heroes
On top of not being the licensed medical professionals we think we are, we’re also not walking Pro Football Reference datacenters (well, most of us). Quick, name the backup long snapper for the Seahawks last season. Trick question: Tyler Ott didn’t need a backup, and neither do most other teams because that’s a roster spot more valuable for a skill position player. Every season, a handful of players come from “out of nowhere” to become stars and All-Pros and Super Bowl champions. They don’t spontaneously appear on the sidelines; they appear in the preseason.
The Best Part of Football Isn’t the Football
My personal favorite thing about the preseason is Hard Knocks, full stop. Not because of the incredible production values, the emotional roller coaster ride, or even the trek through each team’s facilities. It’s the characters. People forget NFL players are people sometimes, I think. We worry about their stats and availability, and laugh at their blunders (my wife will never forget Odell and the Net), but how many players do you recognize without their helmets on?
On top of that, the preseason allows us to learn about UDFAs, late-round rookies we may never see play again, assistant coaches, and more. Televised preseason games feature a team’s local broadcasters and production crews, not the national ones. We may hear from a long-retired or beloved member of the franchise’s family. We get local sponsors, locally-flavored analysis, and great in-game anecdotes. To me, that’s more watchable and wildly more entertaining than the on-field product itself.
Ultimately, the preseason is different things to different people. The games are not “meaningless” any more than a job interview or a family reunion is. They just might mean something unique to each of us, and that’s okay. There’s still lots to learn for most of us. Except, of course, for Aaron Rodgers. F*ck that dude.