I respect the NFL preseason and you should too

SFGATE columnist Drew Magary defends the indefensible

Trey Lance in hot preseason action last Friday, Aug. 12, 2022, against the Packers. 

Trey Lance in hot preseason action last Friday, Aug. 12, 2022, against the Packers. 

Jed Jacobsohn/AP

Hating the NFL preseason is less an opinion than a reflex. You’re conceived, you gestate, you come out of the womb, and by then you already know that watching the Hall of Fame Game is a waste of time. Despite its high ratings, Americans hate the NFL preseason so much that even when the NFL lopped off the fourth preseason game and added a 17th actual game in its place, that STILL wasn’t enough to blunt the antipathy. Well, luckily, I am here to piss all of you off with a contradictory opinion on the matter, which is that the NFL preseason is both necessary and, in spots, really quite enjoyable. When I asked my editors if I could write this post, here is how they responded, one right on top of the other:

“That is f—king unhinged”

“oh god f—k off”

You’re likely saying the same thing to your phone right now. But don’t suplex me for this take just yet. Read on until you’re good and angry enough to rip my head off. Then you’ll TRULY be ready for some football.

As the NFL, in tandem with the NFL Players Association, has reduced the number of preseason games, a growing number of head coaches, Sean McVay chief among them, now eschew playing any of their starters for a single snap in August. This makes sense if, like McVay, you’re in charge of a roster laden with proven veterans who already know your scheme and can already play football at NFL speed.

But not every team can have such a roster. Some of them, like the Lions, are heavy on younger players. Others, like the Dolphins, have a new coach in place who’s brought an entirely new playbook, new verbiage, and new players along with them. Outside of joint training camp practices, the preseason is the only place where teams like the Lions and Dolphins can settle lingering position battles (even if, especially if, those battles are for a backup position), get younger players live reps, and get everyone on the roster better acquainted with new schemes. These teams NEED the preseason, if only a small part of it.

And what fan doesn’t want to put on their scouty pants and watch their team’s rookies and new starters in the preseason? I know I do. My team drafted a guard in the second round this past spring, and the preseason represented the only chance I had to watch plays off-ball, in real time, to see if the guy was worth a crap. (He was.) If you’re a Niners fan, you could have done likewise this past weekend and trained your vision on new starting left guard Aaron Banks, who allowed zero pressures on 15 pass-blocking snaps against Green Bay. Or, more likely, you could have watched your new starting QB for a while instead.

As Pro Football Focus noted a year ago, defensive coordinators often call the same plays in the preseason that they end up using in the regular season. That means that if you’re a callow offensive player like Trey Lance, you’re playing against looks that you have a good chance of actually seeing once the games count. Lance only dropped back seven times against the Packers this past weekend, in the only action he’s likely to see prior to Week 1. That was more than enough for you to draw wildly premature conclusions about how he’ll fare in the coming months (not the most accurate fella, but how about that touchdown pass to Danny Gray AMIRITE?!), but those conclusions won’t be pulled ENTIRELY out of your large intestine. As a football fan, it’s important that I be seen as knowing more than other football fans. Watching Lance overthrow the s—t out of the ball a couple of times against the Packers helped me address that need.

Because it’s not as if I watch these games to see who will actually win them. That’s idiocy. I know the final score is worthless. I know that your average preseason game is a loose hodgepodge of varying strings playing against other varying strings. I know that offenses aren’t gonna bust out their coolest tricks. But if you already know those caveats going in, then you already know what to look for and what not to look for.

None of this matters much if you’re not watching your own team. Do I care who’s gonna win the QB job in Seattle? No, because not even the Seahawks do. But if you ARE watching your own team, you get to treat every preseason table scrap like it’s a goddamn rib eye. Even if you draw the wrong conclusions from what you see, it’s still fun to fool yourself a little. To daydream. Unlike if you were the coach, there are no consequences for being wrong when you do so.

And you might say to me, “Yeah, but Drew, none of this is worth injuring players. Look at Zach Wilson!” To which I say: yes, look at Zach Wilson. Zach Wilson blows. The Jets did themselves a favor by trotting his MILF-hunting ass out there to have his knee liquefied. This is the NFL. Players will get hurt one way or another, whether they’re in-season or whether they’re preparing for it, and sometimes the latter is an unavoidable necessity. Zach Wilson needed those reps almost as badly as the Jets needed an excuse to turn to any other quarterback. Everybody won in the exchange.

And if you’re Bill Belichick, you can also use the preseason as a way of creating rep equilibrium across the entire depth chart, so that down-roster guys get as much seasoning as the starters.

“The players that played a lot in the game did less in some of the practices leading up to the game,” he explained after resting his starters for the Patriots’ preseason opener last week. “So, I think when you look cumulatively, over, call it Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, which actually we have, the volumes are pretty close.”

I could use that quote to feed into the hoariest of preseason defenses, which is that the preseason is a chance for you to watch nobodies scratch and claw for the final roster spot. But you can gorge on that cliché by watching any episode of “Hard Knocks.” The important thing to remember here is that you never know which bit players will end up playing meaningful snaps in the regular season due to injury and/or underperformance, and the preseason sometimes acts as a good indicator of whether or not your team is f—ked sideways if those bit players end up getting time.

Conversely, you might also get a sneak peek at skill position rookies like George Pickens of the Steelers and Dameon Pierce of the Texans, both of whom already appear to be at NFL speed and have already drummed up enough fantasy hype to make Matthew Berry dry hump a nearby support beam. I remember watching Adrian Peterson’s rookie preseason and, like everyone else who watched, walking away convinced he’d be a fantastic player. He was. Those are fun moments to be had as you sift through a pile of fool’s gold.

Keep in mind I don’t watch EVERY preseason NFL game. I’m sick, but not terminal. This year, the NFL rolled out its own streaming service whose chief selling point (at least for the base package) is that you can watch any preseason game you like. Is that worth $5 a month to you, the consumer? No. You’re better off donating that money to Exxon. 

Austin Gayle, formerly of Pro Football Focus and now with Spotify/The Ringer, sees little utility to the preseason when joint practices exist already. “Live 11-on-11 reps are massively useful from a team standpoint leading into the regular season,” he wrote in an email to SFGATE. “Teams prioritize those by chasing joint practice opportunities where they can control for quarterback contact and to-the-ground reps. However, that doesn't mean those 11-on-11 reps need to be televised and under LESS quarterback contact control like they are in traditional preseason games.”

But preseason games make everyone a lot of money, and so they remain. You might as well enjoy them as they do, and that enjoyment only increases the more seriously you take these exhibitions. I like taking in a little bit of preseason action every year, and not merely so I can burnish my football cred to myself.

It’s curious that sports fans of a certain flavor are dismissive of the NFL preseason and capable of treating NBA Summer League like it’s f—king Burning Man. The NBA, along with MLB and the NHL, has more than enough regular season games to get both players and fans acclimated to their surroundings. The NFL, by contrast, has only a limited inventory. It may not feel that way when you’re watching three primetime games a week in October and the third one is a game between the Raiders and the Jets, but still: 17 games ain’t a lot. So I need as much football as I can get, and while preseason isn’t the real thing, it whets my appetite plenty.

It’s nice to see those uniforms out on the field again. It’s nice to see the TV graphics. It’s nice to hear the announcers, even when they suck. It’s nice to be reminded that real football is going to be here sooner rather than later. That’s more than enough.