And the pre-season has to get in the way of everything. It may be the worst football you see all year.
But it’s our football, and it’s still the NFL. Or so, the league wants you to believe. Those north of 40 years of age will recall the National Football League actually had a pre-season consisting of six (6!) games during the 1970’s, moving to the current four-game schedule in 1978 when the regular season expanded from 14 to 16 games. Correct me, please, if I’m wrong here…but didn’t the football played in the ‘70’s – especially that played in the pre-season – seem more physical…more competitive…more palatable and acceptable to connoisseur’s everywhere?
This was back in the day when the game was played by “oversized coal miners” and “West Texas psychopaths,” Donovan recalled years ago. It stands to reason the games played by these guys would be entertaining, at the very least, if not outright competitive…especially with players fighting for their jobs.
What’s that you say? The players today also fight for their jobs? Of course they do. But at the root of this evil – why our pre-season games presently fall short of acceptability and basically stink to high-heaven – is something simple, yet valuable; lightweight individually, but a real heavyweight with plenty of clout when you get them all together.
Reason #2 whypreseason then beats out preseason now? I speak of the dollar bills we throw at the game. It’s the money, plain and simple. When the AFL and NFL merged in 1970 and the new league was granted an exemption from the Sherman Anti-trust Act (anti-competition legislation), owners at the time lengthened the pre-season schedule and began charging regular season prices for exhibition games. Don’t like it? Well, fans were (and still are, to a large degree) required to purchase these tickets in order to keep their seats for the games that really matter. With more money in their pockets – and pre-season money doesn’t have to be shared with players – owners ran their teams like anyone would run a business. For a profit. Demand began to exceed supply as fans clamored to watch their stars in action…whether the games meant something or not.
Let’s cut a piece of the blame pie for the players and coaches, too. It might be an over-simplification to say they don’t have any real motivation, because their game checks don’t come in the mail until the regular season starts. Which they don’t. You can also make an argument for the lack of intensity in these games coming primarily because 45-or-so roster spots are already pre-determined, leaving precious little room for the rest of the 90-man roster to wedge into…and you can also understand how the exhibition games themselves become a mere afterthought for the coaches, with their primary focus on players who stand out at practice every day.
Anyone remember what happened to the Detroit Lions of 2008? They went 4-0 in the pre-season, and promptly followed that performance with a record-setting 0-16 pratfall in games-that-counted, the first winless regular season since the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 0-14 in 1976. The Patriots were a mere 1-3 in the 2004 pre-season, with two Super Bowl titles in the previous three years…and ended up winning a 3rd trophy later that season. New England is just 11-14 since 2008 in games-that-don’t-count, but the team has taken five AFC East Division titles in a row (and 11 of the last 13 overall). With coaches playing inexperienced players, resting regulars and with no real game-planning involved, why should anyone draw a fair conclusion from pre-season performance to regular-season expectation?
You shouldn’t…and that includes this past week in Washington, DC.
The pre-season games themselves aren’t the natural conclusion for a week’s worth of preparation and game-planning. They’re a nuisance, a necessary end to a week’s worth of teaching, learning and team-building…they’re an end to the means, not the means to an end. They’re part of an economic engine (albeit a clunky part) that continues to drive the NFL further into our athletic consciousness like never before.
And they’re fueled by your wallet. Your expectations are high, based on what you think you know to be true. But you don’t know, and neither do the coaches or players (yet). That part of the process is just beginning to play out. So hold your tongue, hold your nose, hold your breath as pre-season football forges ahead, getting in the way of the real thing.
You helped create the mess we’re all in.
John Rooke is an author and award-winning broadcaster, and has been the Patriots’ stadium voice for 22 years. Currently serving in several media capacities – which include hosting “Patriots Playbook” during the season on Patriots.com Radio for 13 years, and broadcasting college football and basketball for the past 26 years, Rooke is also a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame.
Follow him on Twitter - @JRbroadcaster