How Important is the NFL Preseason?

     The NFL preseason takes place annually during the month of August, typically lasting the four weeks before the NFL regular season begins.  While generally seen by NFL teams as a great opportunity to evaluate their players and select who makes each team’s 53 man roster,  fans have varying opinions on whether or not anything that happens during the preseason actually matters.  There are the fans that see the NFL’s preseason as a great time to see the new rookies play and make sure everything looks good before the season starts, just as many, if not more people see it as a needless waste of time that could be spent on more, real football games.  The NFL is considering shortening the preseason to only two games, and extending the regular season to eighteen, which has caused much debate on the subject.  So just how important is the preseason after all?  More specifically, should it be shortened or stay at its current length?
     The question most fans want answered about the preseason is a pretty simple one: do preseason wins translate to regular season wins?  Disappointingly, the answer is no.  A team that does good in the preseason doesn’t have a significantly better chance of making the playoffs or winning a Super Bowl.  Many people like to bring up how the winless 2008 Detroit Lions won all four of their preseason games.  However, I don’t think that people should expect a correlation in preseason wins to regular season wins just based on the nature of the preseason.  Starters play maybe one quarter in most games, and if they’re even slightly injured, they don’t play at all.  Even in the third preseason game, starters never really play into the second half.  It’s less about trying to win as it is seeing how different players play together and what plays and formations work best.
     Should fans be disappointed by poor performance and losing during the preseason?  While it might be natural to become disappointed, and fans inevitably are happier when their team is winning, error should be expected in the preseason.  No one takes on another team for the first time in over half a year and immediately should be expected to dominate.  The preseason is really about giving your starters enough experience for them to feel comfortable with their abilities, and devote the rest of time to testing out young players in a variety of situations.
     Some people claim that the risk of getting injured makes preseason games naturally less competitive than a regular season game.  I think it’s absurd to liken the preseason to something like the Pro Bowl, where players purposefully don’t give it 100%.  The Pro Bowl doesn’t matter.  Preseason games matter.  I can see the argument that some starters might not give it their all, but honestly how many starters have jobs so safe that they could give no effort in the preseason and expect to remain an undisputed starter in the regular season?  I would say very few.  Most players are giving it all they’ve got in the preseason, especially guys fighting for roster spots.  For these players, which are at least 50% of players, and probably more, each snap is a chance for them to prove themselves and perform well enough to accomplish their dream of making an NFL roster.  They’re holding nothing back, because if they do they’ll find themselves out of the league and with nowhere to go.  Plus, go look at injury reports.  Guys get injured in the preseason just as much as the regular season.
     The deal is, regardless of reasoning for shortening the preseason, players need all four games to be effectively evaluated.  It’s unlike baseball, where everyone who starts besides pitchers typically plays the whole game.  It’s unlike the NBA where by preseason it’s basically known who will be on the team opening day.  These players play a quarter per game, or the equivalent of one to one and a half games of action per preseason.  That’s not even counting the fact that offensive players are on the bench for  defense and vice-versa.  The average player is on the field for under a full game’s worth of time during preseason.
     The preseason may feel long and mostly unnecessary to many fans, because it is a long preseason when compared to the length of the regular season.  In the NBA and NHL, each team plays 7-8 preseason games, making the preseason slightly under 10% of the games of the regular season.  In the MLB, each team plays around 24-30 games, or around 15-19% of the games every team plays in the regular season.  For football the ratio is 4-16, so the preseason is 25% the length of the regular season, by far the highest in the big 4 sports.  However, due to each player’s limited playtime, and all the different players, schemes, routes, plays, formations, coverages, etc. tested by each NFL team during the preseason, the four games are absolutely necessary for each team to have a good sense of what they’re doing for when the games really matter.
     Let’s think about what happens in a two game preseason.  The starters end up getting more reps in each game because it is mandatory that they get enough in game action so that they’re ready for the regular season.  The time they play in four games currently, they play in two.  Teams are rushed to try out all their new plays and ideas they’ve been practicing in training camp, and the rapid changes and experimentation mean that offenses can’t get into a rhythm, and come across as sloppy.  Third stringers get less time to play, and don’t have enough chance to prove themselves. Therefore, undrafted players are always cut.  Think about that.  Here’s a few notable undrafted players.  Kurt Warner, Warren Moon, Adam Vinatieri, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Jeff Saturday, Wes Welker, and Tony Romo.  We’re talking pro bowlers, Super Bowl Champions, even Hall of Famers.  Not even to mention late round picks such as Tom Brady who would probably be cut in this scenario as well.  I realize this was an over exaggerated example, but my point is clear.
     Most likely, some people within the NFL would like to extend the regular season and shorten the preseason simply because of money.  Obviously, more money is made in ticket sales and TV views, and publicity during the NFL season rather than the preseason.  It seems that the endless pursuit of money is controlling the future of football more than anything else.
     So, is the preseason important?  Of course it is.  The four preseason games are instrumental in a team’s preparation for the upcoming season.  Allowing players to prove themselves and feel more comfortable with the playbook, the preseason must be used effectively by teams that want to be successful.  Preseason success isn’t in the win loss record, but rather in the experience and knowledge gained by both the players and coaching staff.
     Thanks for reading,

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