Forget the past; today’s version of NFL preseason is totally meaningless

Aug 24, 2022, 6:43 AM
Trey Quinn...
(Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)
(Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

Ask any longtime Denver Broncos fan what value lies in the NFL preseason and they’ll almost all answer with the same thing: Future Hall-of-Famer Terrell Davis once caught then-coach Mike Shanahan’s eye by making a ferocious tackle on special teams during a preseason game in Tokyo back in 1995.

Without the opportunity for Davis to make that play, the Broncos might never have given their sixth-round selection more snaps, leading to his emergence as a star running back. And without Davis’ MVP-caliber play, John Elway and the Broncos would’ve never won a single Super Bowl, let alone the back-to-back ones that they did following the 1997 and ’98 seasons.

All because the preseason mattered. That was then. This is now.

Today’s NFL preseason is more akin to an appendix, a vestigial organ that exists more as a luxury tax on season-ticket holders than it has to do with player evaluation, and it can just as easily be removed without harm.

The reality can be witnessed across the league’s landscape; one in which roughly half of the league’s starting quarterbacks have appeared in one of the two preseason games thus far, with the other half unlikely to appear at all. The Broncos’ eagerly anticipated Russell Wilson will be one of the latter, as new coach Nathaniel Hackett sees the now-three game stretch as one that poses only risks, rather than rewards.

Hackett’s hardly alone; increasing numbers of coaches around the NFL have decided to eschew significant participation in the league’s glorified exhibition games. The risk of injuries may headline their reasoning, but there’s more to it than that.

In 1995, only 14 percent of Americans used the internet, and if they did, it was likely through CompuServe, Prodigy or upstart America Online. YouTube certainly didn’t exist, and the very concept of video streaming sounded more like a scene out of “Star Trek” than a forthcoming reality. The iPhone wasn’t even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye. The world — and the football world — as we know it today simply didn’t exist.

University of Georgia coach Ray Goff didn’t have any interest in sharing game film with NFL scouts in 1995, meaning that, unless you were there, the most you had seen of Davis was likely in the 1991 and ’92 seasons, while he backed up future first-rounder Garrison Hearst. Davis became the starter in 1993, but was injured in the first part of his senior season of 1994. The Bulldogs didn’t make a bowl game in either of those two seasons, so Davis came into the draft with a reputation as injury-prone, and without the benefit of an internet that would have allowed anyone with a phone to view virtually any play of Davis’ collegiate career.

In other words, Davis slipped through cracks in the draft process that have long since been filled by modern technology and an ever-widening array of broadcast outlets trying to satiate America’s enduring hunger for football. He would’ve almost certainly been drafted higher in today’s NFL, and even if he hadn’t have been, by the time today’s lengthy and thorough offseason programs were completed, his coaching staff would have known what type of player they had before training camp had even started.

At least 46 players out of the Broncos’ eventual 53-man roster are relatively easy to predict, and have been prior to the beginning of training camp. They still need to decide on a backup quarterback, which wide receiver to waive, how many defensive backs and tight ends to keep, and pick a punter. For those holding onto the antiquated notion that Denver’s final preseason game against Minnesota this weekend will be the deciding factor, think again — Hackett and the Broncos have already proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that in-game performances are meaningless.

Safety Jamar Johnson led the Broncos in tackles in their preseason-opening win against the Cowboys. Johnson was among the team’s first cuts only three days later. Wide receiver Trey Quinn led the Broncos in both receptions and receiving yards in last week’s loss in Buffalo. He, too, was cut only three days afterward, along with running back Stevie Scott III, who led the Broncos in rushing in both games.

What more could these players have done, beyond leading their own team in their own roles? The truth is that their performances didn’t matter in the slightest; the die was cast before the game even started. The very fact that they played enough to put up those team-leading numbers was actually proof that Hackett, general manager George Paton and the Broncos had already decided that the trio was extraneous; they were simply out there to mitigate the injury risk to the players that Denver’s braintrust already decided were the ones that really mattered.

In truth, scouting and practices — especially joint practices like the Broncos had with the Cowboys prior to their preseason game — are the deciding factors regarding who stays and who goes on NFL rosters in 2022, and even those decide only a handful of spots on the roster and the bargain-basement practice squad. The reality is this: coaches no longer require preseason games for player evaluation, because they’ve already acquired all the knowledge they need by the time training camp comes to a close — and they’re acting accordingly.

“Not too much. We are trying to make sure we have everything in that we need for the season,” Hackett said on Tuesday, when asked about how much he game-plans for the final preseason contest, before referring to this week’s practice schedule instead. “That’s the most important thing. We want to detail everything up that we’ve been doing and go back and refresh our minds. Once you get into the season, you get so locked in on that game plan each week, so we want to do a huge review. We have all kinds of tests, all kinds of different things that we are doing with the guys competitively, just to try to simulate it all the way back to Day One of training camp. From a game-plan standpoint, it’s still just preseason games.”

The value of the NFL preseason continues to diminish from a competitive standpoint, and the time where it’s become obsolete in favor of more useful, joint practices — in which coaches have far more control — is closing in quickly. Soon, the value of preseason will lie only in its ability to extract more money from season-ticket holders, who are forced to buy the full-priced tickets to these meaningless games, just for the privilege of paying more for the ones that count.

Given that reality, it’s hard to imagine preseason games going away anytime soon. That doesn’t mean you have to be fooled into believing they matter, though; just like the NFL’s wisest coaches, you don’t need football’s appendix.



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Forget the past; today’s version of NFL preseason is totally meaningless