Sunday, August 26, 2007


If it wasn’t for the coverage of Atlanta player number 7, maybe there would be a few soundbites revolved around why the NFL preseason is too long.

I know you’re asking what does the Braves outfielder Jeff Francouer has to do with football.

Since the other guy who wore that number in the unofficial capital of the South has a little legal trouble, it has been non-stop coverage of the alleged crime, how athletes fare against the judicial system and the opinions from every corner of the country. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything about what is taking place in these August sessions because nearly every media outlet – including non-sports and news media – is focusing on the Michael Vick story. That said, the preseason is something that is clamored for once July ends and many baseball teams fade away from playoff contention. With eighty-plus days of just one of the major sports, the football fan begs for the smallest details to let him or her know that the regular season draws nearer by the second. The media gladly feeds the need because the NFL is such a ratings draw across the States. More importantly, the players, coaches and executives just want to get back to work. So why has there been such a disdain toward these exhibition games?

Going back to the last point, everyone just wants to go to work. These folks spend seven to eight months of the year away from the big lights and hard hits. Because of the nature of the sport, there is the dire need of healing and rejuvenation from all of the hits, wear and tear of various fields and dogged persistence of us media heads. Yet, there is always some proposal to shorten the preseason, add games to the regular season or some combination of the two in order to satiate the desires of all of us that aren’t on the field. The NFL is undoubtedly America’s Passion, but to rush to get the regular season started for better television shares is at best, dumb. Like clockwork, you’ll hear about the veterans who are tired of training camp and rather risk an injury when the games count in the standings than when the games do not, which is completely understandable. Yet, there are a few reasons why despite their truism, that the schedule should never change.

For the fans – after all, it’s all about us, we think – the preseason presents a great opportunity to see someone’s comeuppance. Back in April, Rockefeller Center was flooded with NFL fans trying to get into the league’s annual Draft to see which college players would fall to which team. There is the usual stock-drop of a big name prospect (Brady Quinn and Matt Leinart being two examples), but for those who stay for all seven rounds between both days, they want to say to their friends and family that they remember when the unknown linebacker that was drafted in the sixth round became one of the all-time greats in the game. That player may get some burn during the preseason before being relegated to the bench during the season, but on any given play, he may be thrusted into the game as an injury replacement... and never let up. The preseason used to be about bringing other fans of the game who couldn't afford a regular-season ticket or even find one in some locations. Even though teams charge full-price for these exhibitions, the usual corporate crowds and lifelong season-ticket holders may decline their seats, leaving an opening for some diehards.

For coaches, the proof is in the extra tape sessions and dedicated time during the summer. Coaches change as often as players, which in turn means that there are new ripples or complete overhauls in the playbook. Unlike the 9-to-5 life where companies still expect perfect execution when bringing new talents and shifting some departments, the exhibition games are the quizzes before the big exam. When hired to become the new coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Tomlin knew that he had to win over his team because their top three coaches were gone. He wanted to bring the 4-3 defensive scheme to the Steel City after nearly 25 years of the 3-4. Though he has retained Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator, he still wants to get his players in tune with four down linemen packages from time to time. That just doesn't happen overnight, especially when having employed the same system since 1983.

The preseason may not be as important to many veterans now, but to a man, many will tell you how important it was to them when they first arrived in the league. First and second rounders may have had some guarantee for their jobs, but that cannot be said for everyone else. Depth is vital in the NFL and these young players will go all out to gain one of those coveted backup spots, even if it means switching positions, dropping or adding weight, what have you. The preseason can also become a last ditch effort for some veterans to salvage their careers. After all, there aren't any guaranteed contracts in the NFL. A two-game preseason isn't a good barometer of a team because the sport calls for as many capable bodies as possible. It would be hard to believe that Tom Brady would be a future Hall-of-Famer if the sixth round and compensatory pick from Michigan didn't give Bill Belichek a glimpse of his talents in the summer of 2000.

Some would say that college football has fared quite well without exhibition games as teams dive straight into the regular schedule. Spring football was supposed to provide enough of a feel for these young players so that they would be ready for the season. Just as their pro counterparts, I could imagine that these student-athletes are dying to play some real games and would rather get hurt against an in-state rival than against their dorm mates. Yet, NCAA football at any level differs from the NFL because the players are (ideally) students first. They are beholden to the demands of practice, practice, more practice, a few classes here and there, a few film sessions and more practice before Saturday. Add a few meet-and-greets with school boosters and the beckoning call of NFL scouts and lurking agents and you have the near-impossibility of a real exhibition season. Instead, athletic departments invite lower-caliber football programs to play the powerhouses, front-loading the schedule with players that may not have been walk-ons at schools like USC. The softer schedule is the equivalent of the preseason, but even in those games, there are the same risks of injury (Louisville’s Michael Bush, anyone).

A truncated preseason may initially bring smiles and relief to those that want to get into the action right away. However, there is the reality that the regular season could be greatly affected by substandard play. Lack of necessary conditioning and familiarity of plays in real-time scenarios for starters will make the first couple of games sloppy and disjointed. The risk of injury will increase and if one of these starters goes down, there are too many unknowns surrounding the depth chart because of the lack of playing time for second and third stringers. Wouldn't you prefer that the kinks get worked out before you try the product?

Say What?!?!: Stop. Just stop. It's not cute, it's not funny, it's not even clever in the slightest. I understand that there are many folks from many walks of life in this country that are detested by what Michael Vick has been involved in. I'm not insensitive to what sorts of torture and executions that those dogs were subjected to. However, for those that have decided to capitalize from this to act as if this is perfectly normal and the greatest ways of sticking it to the embattled quarterback is equally absurd. From minor-league baseball teams to eBay connoisseurs, the very thought of making a dollar or a media mention from this is a testament to how much more we care about another species than our own. Not even Rae Carruth's murder of his pregnant girlfriend drew such prolonged anger from the public, let alone activist groups. To quote the fair-minded broadcasting legend Bill Walton, "this is an absolute disgrace". Please. Just. Stop.

From the Lockerroom to the Boardroom: Don't worry, Giants, Jets, Patriots and Cowboys fans. The Tuna made life difficult for Madison Avenue as well as East Rutherford, Foxboro and Irving.

No comments: