Photo Credit: 5chw4r7z, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
So far through two preseason games, the Cincinnati Bengals have yet to get a win. Neither have the Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, Carolina Panthers, and Los Angeles Rams. And guess what? It means absolutely nothing – but that hasn’t stopped people from stressing out.
The truth is, extrapolating anything from the preseason is a crazy notion. Sure, technically football is being played, but it’s a bastardized, low-calorie variant that’s as off-putting as it is unsatisfying. Panicking over preseason is like panicking over a Myers-Briggs test – it’s a waste of time.
Take the Baltimore Ravens, for example. Until Monday night, they had won an NFL record 24 preseason games in a row, and everyone in and around the NFL universally agreed that the streak did not – and had not – projected future success. The Ravens “win streak” started back in 2016, and in that span, they won the division twice, finished second in the division four times, finished last once, made the playoffs four out of seven years, and never advanced beyond the divisional round, winning just one playoff game before being curb-stomped by the Buffalo Bills in the Divisional Round in 2020. In short: it didn’t mean shit.
Remember the 2017 Cleveland Browns and the 2008 Detroit Lions? The two teams that finished winless for a 16 game NFL season? Yeah, they both went undefeated in the preseason. How’d that work out for them? In 1982, the Washington Redskins went winless in the preseason and they ended up winning the Super Bowl. Heck, even the 2007 New England Patriots that went undefeated during the regular season and absolutely eviscerated their opponents went 2 - 2 in the NFL’s warm-up period.
In many ways, the preseason is to the NFL season what the NFL Combine is to scouting. Once again, it’s universally accepted amongst the scouting community that extrapolating much of anything from the Underwear Olympics is a bad idea. They’re running drills, not playing football. Plus, as modern nutrition, strength training and combine preparation have gotten better over the years, so too have the performances. Are NFL athletes today that much better than NFL athletes of twenty or thirty years ago? Maybe, but all I have to do is point to John Ross and his 4.22 40-yard dash and suddenly, eye-popping testing scores lose a ton of luster.
By far, the most important tool for any NFL coach and scout is film, not testing scores. Just like the Myers-Briggs isn’t a perfect tool for projecting personality, the NFL combine and preseason are insufficient for projecting a player’s ability. College stats often lie, and so do combine numbers, but the film usually gets it right. Listen to any coach or scout talk about the Combine and they’ll tell you the same thing: it’s used more to confirm an opinion rather than form one.
The same idea applies to preseason snaps. Unlike a real game, there are no stakes to the NFL preseason. Most of the players already know where they’re going to fall on the depth chart, and the final result has no sway on the real standings. For the most part, the only players who truly, unequivocally care about the preseason are the ones who are on the roster bubble. For them, this might be their only opportunity to really shine. Otherwise, it’s a glorified dress rehearsal.
NFL coaches get far more out of watching a player practice than they do during preseason games. During practice, coaches can correct mistakes in real time while putting certain plays and concepts on repeat until they get everything correct. Preseason games are uncontrolled environments where winning is the last objective on a coach’s itinerary. I can guarantee you if you asked every single coach in the NFL if they would prefer to win a preseason game or lose every preseason game but the entire roster stays healthy, they would all choose the latter (except for maybe John Harbaugh).
Think about the situation Bengals are in right now: this is a team that has a punting competition between last year’s starter Drue Chrisman and rookie sixth-round pick Brad Robbins. It would make total sense if Zac Taylor and the staff were absolutely content to see 3rd down conversions fail – because they want to see if the punter they drafted can punt. Getting him reps in an unfamiliar environment is a worthwhile endeavor – far more so than putting a few extra points on the board.
So, the next time you sit down to watch a Bengals preseason game, just remember this: it might look like real football, but it’s not real football. You might feel stressed or angry, but it’s not real stress or anger. The preseason is a time for experimentation and evaluation, not emotional eruption. Next time the Bengals offense looks sluggish, or some tackle misses a block (**cough cough** Jackson Carman **cough**) or the defense looks like it’s being shredded by a backup QB, just relax. The coaches aren’t panicking – neither should you.