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The Preseason is Meaningless

Pre-season superstar, Colt Brennan.

I have a love/hate relationship with the pre-season. After months without football, it’s hard not to get excited about the prospect of seeing live NFL games. But as soon as I start watching pre-season action, I usually wish I was doing just about anything else. But I keep watching. Maybe the better description is that I’m a pre-season addict.

Everyone knows the preseason is meaningless. The coaches do, the players do, and the fans do. There is no simpler way to explain it than this: the main goal is not winning. It’s trying out new plays. Or staying healthy. Or avoiding showing too much. Or seeing how a certain formation, route, or play, works. Or seeing how a player responds to an event. But winning is never the main goal.

But as much as I can’t stand watching the preseason (but still do), what I really can’t stand is reading people talk about how good (or bad) a player or team looks in the preseason. It’s about the most meaningless piece of data one could ever cite, although of course some will say differently. There are those who believe if you know what to look for you can get meaningful information out of preseason games. To them I say, good luck.

As Exhibits A through Z, I present to you, Ryan Leaf.

There weren’t any apparent opening-night jitters for Ryan Leaf.

The touted rookie quarterback from Washington State came out poised and led two scoring drives – capping one with an impressive 3-yard TD pass to Bryan Still – and the San Diego Chargers beat San Francisco 27-21 in their exhibition opener last night.

Leaf made a few mistakes, like throwing into double coverage at the goal line – Still actually drew a pass-interference call on that one – and not getting off a play in time during the two-minute drill.

Otherwise, Leaf had a better night than Steve Young.

The 22-year-old Leaf, taken with the second pick in the April draft and named the starter for the season on Wednesday, was 14 for 20 for 116 yards.

Here’s another account of his first night:

Ryan Leaf didn’t look at all like a rattled rookie in his NFL debut. Sure, the touted San Diego Chargers quarterback made some mistakes and still has a ways to go in adjusting to the faster pace of the pro game. But was he nervous? Nope. It’s not in his playbook.

“He throws so accurately,” coach Kevin Gilbride said. “Even though he was late a few times, he put it in position where the only one who could catch it was us. That was the most encouraging thing…. I don’t want to in any way, shape or form make it seem like he’s where he needs to be. Still, he’s able to make plays and that’s what it comes down to. I thought he did that very, very well.” As he has numerous times this summer, Gilbride called Leaf “special.” Running back Terrell Fletcher called Leaf “a fearless player. That’s a big attribute.”
Leaf said the radio receiver in his helmet, which coaches use to call in plays, didn’t work the first two series. He partially winged it, with help from his teammates and quarterback coach June Jones, who told him to have three or four plays down pat to use. “I think he surprised a lot of people with how composed he was,” guard Raleigh McKenzie said. “We went three-and-out the first series, then he got real poised. He knew what to do in there.”

Leaf’s first pre-season start was much better than the man selected one spot before him in the 1998 draft:

Watching Peyton Manning and Jon Kitna, it was hard to tell who was the No. 1 pick in this year’s NFL draft. All Archie Manning’s tutoring and that extra year at Tennessee couldn’t get Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts past the Seattle Seahawks and Kitna in his pro debut.

After his first pass, a 48-yard touchdown strike to Marvin Harrison on his first series, Manning looked like an ordinary NFL rookie. There was a fumble that teammate Tony Mandarich recovered and an interception to end a series. In Manning’s other four series, it was three-and-out.

“He’ll learn from his mistakes and he’ll play better,” Colts coach Jim Mora said.

Manning admitted: “I need to play a little better. We didn’t move the ball very well.”

Against Seattle, Manning was 8-for-15 for 113 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He looked confused at times. The NFL isn’t the Southeastern Conference. His father, Archie, a former NFL quarterback, told him that and now he’s finding that out for himself.

He was intercepted by cornerback Fred Thomas in the second quarter before being replaced by Kelly Holcomb. On the first play of the second quarter, Manning fumbled without being hit, but the ball was recovered by Mandarich.

“That was a rare, freak play,” Manning said of the fumble. “The ball just slipped out of my hand.”

But that was just one game. Manning and Leaf met head-to-head in the regular season dress rehearsal known as week three of the preseason:

Round 1 went to Ryan Leaf and the San Diego Chargers. The rematch with the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning will be in October, when it counts.

The meeting last night between Leaf, the second pick in the National Football League draft, and Manning, the No. 1 pick, was only the second time in N.F.L. history quarterbacks picked 1-2 in the draft had faced each other as rookies.

Leaf was 15 for 24 for 172 yards, set up one touchdown and ran for a score as the Chargers broke a 3-3 tie at half and beat the Colts 33-3. It was only an exhibition game, but after a shaky first half, Leaf looked sharp in leading the Chargers.

Manning, playing into the third quarter for the first time in the preseason, was 11 for 21 for 123 yards but twice had passes intercepted.

I know we’re all excited for the preseason, and it’s fun when the players we hope to have breakout years look great in the preseason. I presented one anecdote above, which proves nothing, but it doesn’t stop people from citing Victor Cruz or Jimmy Graham as reasons to believe in preseason success. But they shouldn’t. Stating that Player X had a great preseason and then had a great year is only one-quarter of the equation. Cam Newton and Jordy Nelson had mediocre or disappointing preseasons last year before having breakout seasons. David Clowney had great preseasons for years but never did anything in the regular season. And, of course, many people have bad preseasons and then and regular seasons.

To truly measure the value of the preseason, someone would need to go through and see how many people fall in each category. Until someone can empirically show that the preseason matters, I’ll continue to try to ignore it. I’m going to need some help if I hope to do that.

  • Andrew

    I’m with you here. I think you can glean some info about a player’s performance from preseason, but until you see him in action week 1, you still don’t know anything about how good he actually is (Nor, for that matter, does seeing him do really well in a season or two tell you how much potential a player really has. Just look at Rick Mirer).

  • Richie

    Ever since I overpaid for Gaston Green in a fantasy draft in about 1990 (because he had something like a 200-yard rushing game in the preseason), I’ve pretty much ignored the preseason.

  • Duff Soviet Union

    I’m pretty sure Football Outsiders did an article years ago about how it could be useful as a predictor of head to head match ups if two teams played in both the preseason and regular season if you just looked at the first half score (usually the time starters are playing).

    Of course, this was years ago, so I’m not sure if this still holds.

    I also know that NBA preseason is more important than people think. Basically you can ignore preseason for teams that were very good last year because they just treat the preseason like a training drill, but bad teams that have a good preseason often see a significant improvement in their record the next year. No idea if this holds for the NFL (I highly doubt it does).

  • Nick Bradley

    Preseason doesn’t matter because teams aren’t necessarily playing to win.

    Oh sure, they’d like to. But their primary focus is to examine issues and areas they have trouble with – example, “We’re having trouble with FB Screens; lets run a lot of those to get it right”. Or a position, “We don’t know who our nickel DB is — lets rotate some different folks through there, run some different schemes, see what happens”

    None of those necessarily lead to victory.

    Finally, you have wildly differing philosophies on how much a QB should play in preseason. Jim Harbaugh, from my understanding, gives Colin Kaepernick fewer preseason reps than any other established quarterback.

    • Arthuro

      “But their primary focus is to examine issues and areas they have trouble with – example, “We’re having trouble with FB Screens; lets run a lot of those to get it right”. Or a position, “We don’t know who our nickel DB is — lets rotate some different folks through there, run some different schemes, see what happens””

      And you call this useless ?