Preseason football can be a tricky thing to figure out.
Games are being played! But the results don't count. There are hundreds of players on the field, doing football-related things! But most of them won't be on a 53-man roster by September, and the better ones hardly play at all. Jobs are on the line! But injuries also must be avoided. Schemes are being installed! But the full plan has to stay under wraps.
Fans would be forgiven for being confused by the whole enterprise. Luckily, I'm here to help make sense of the madness. I've been working in and observing the NFL in one way or another for the last 40 years, and I've seen the offseason and preseason evolve over time. Below, I've broken down two ways to look at the preseason as it is currently constituted: what GMs are looking for and -- the reason you're here! -- what fans should be looking for.
But first, let's break down what the preseason used to be like and how it evolved into what it is today.
Back in 1977, when I got my start in the NFL as an intern with the Washington Redskins, we reported to training camp right after July 4 and stayed at the site until Labor Day. We had two-a-day practices, including two hours per day in full pads, with one day off each week. Players played themselves into shape during camp and the six-game preseason, and starters took the field often -- this is the opposite of how things are today, with players working year-round to maintain peak physical fitness and starters mostly hanging back until September.
In 1978, my first year as a scout, the NFL went to a 16-game regular season, with four preseason games. And over the next several seasons, teams began doing more workouts -- with the growing popularity of strength training -- in the offseason to get their players in better shape prior to camp. Then, in 1982, Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs decided to make offseason strength training and conditioning a priority by hiring Dan Riley to be his strength coach. Gibbs also instituted offseason practices called "Summer School" (now called OTAs), following the league-wide trend to do more work with players in the offseason. Training camp schedules also changed some. Instead of doing regular two-a-days all week long, some practices were dedicated to weight lifting and there were also evening scrimmages.
From the early 1980s through the mid-1990s, starters often followed this preseason plan: They played one quarter in Week 1 of the preseason, two in the second week, three quarters in the third game, then had some playing time in the preseason finale. This routine changed in the late '90s as playing time for starters began to diminish.
I recently spoke with former and current coaches and GMs on the ever-evolving offseason and preseason schedules, and they offered some insight as to why teams operate like they do in 2019. First, offseason training schedules, which include voluntary workouts, OTAs and minicamps, encourage veteran players to come to camp in good shape. This allows players to focus on what their bodies need to be ready for in the regular season, rather than using training camp alone to get into shape. Second, the offseason is utilized to install entire systems, so training camp and the preseason can be used for review and additions. Third, starters often don't play much in August, because coaches are worried about losing their stars to injury. (In my opinion, some of this is due to head coaches having a short shelf life. They can't jeopardize the regular season by playing starters in games that don't count.) And lastly, joint practices give starters the opportunity to see game-like action against opponents without playing in the preseason.
Next, let's break down how to observe the preseason.
What GMs are looking for
One of the main jobs of the general manager is to always be evaluating the team. When I was the GM in Washington and Houston, I met daily with training staff/athletic performance staff and team doctors to decide who would be practicing. I attended each practice and game to evaluate and grade each player. I constantly graded players on their performances. It didn't matter if the performances were in games or not.
After each preseason game, I would watch film with the coaches and, again, grade every player on each play. This process can be long and tedious, but it's necessary in order to build the best team. In addition to watching film with the coaching staff, I would meet with them after games to hear their comments. We would also have weekly meetings with the head coach, assistants and scouts to review the roster, assess team needs and construct a "mock cut" to prepare for the final-cut day. Finally, a general manager meets with the head coach to decide how playing time will be divided. On the teams I was with (Washington and Houston), the coach had final say, but it's essential that the general manager and coach are on the same page, especially when it comes to position battles and areas of concern.
The GM must also know what's going on around the league. When I was GM, my staff and I called each NFL team weekly to discuss their needs and surpluses at each position. We also exchanged information on teams we each practiced against. All of this information was posted on a board in our pro scouting room and used in preparation for possible trades and waiver claims. As a scouting department, we reviewed this board weekly with other game reports from the pro and college scouts who graded every non-starter playing in the preseason.
When players were brought into our facilities for workouts -- in hopes of getting a contract -- I would be there, evaluating. Each day, I read a clipping service that provided our group articles from every newspaper in the cities that had NFL teams. This provided detailed articles on players and teams, which was especially useful when learning about our opponents. The service is still widely used today along with social media sites like Twitter.
What should the fans look for?
1) How do your team's starters play vs. other teams' starters? In 1982, the Redskins went 0-4 in the preseason, but our starters played extremely well when on the field. Our team was either tied or ahead each time our starters left the game. We went on to win the Super Bowl that season.
2) Progress of second-year players. In Year 2, players should have a good understanding of the system. High draft picks should be solidifying starting positions -- if they haven't already done so. Unproven players must continue to earn roster spots and, beyond that, meaningful playing time.
3) Position battles. Position battles can be dramatic, but they aren't always a bad thing. Ideally, they stem from an abundance of depth at a certain position -- this is a good problem to have! Unfortunately, it can also be the case that no one has done enough to earn the starting spot -- this is not the most ideal scenario. Either way, watching and learning about particular players and positions, especially those highlighted in the press, might help you further understand why certain coaching decisions are made.
DON'T PAY ATTENTION TO: preseason records. Don't get too high or too low about the final record. This period is primarily used for training and player evaluations. Records aren't important until September. It's fair to expect one "bad" game during this time because there tends to be a lot more distractions surrounding the team .
A new attitude and sense of urgency WILL come with the end of the preseason. It makes no difference whether your team is a contender or rebuilding. Once that 53-man roster is set, winning is the only thing that matters.