To borrow from the late, great Mitch Hedberg, the NFL preseason can be a little bit like pancakes: all exciting at first, but then by the end, you’re fuckin’ sick of ’em.
Two preseason games are already in the books, and Thursday night the main slate begins in earnest with seven games on the schedule. That means plenty of excitement for fans of every team, but for most of us, the high of the preseason won’t take too long to wear off. It might take only a quarter or two of exhibition football before you’re back to your reruns of Law & Order, anxiously waiting for the real thing to start up in September. And hey, no one’s going to blame you. Preseason football is sloppy. Stars and starters barely play. Wins and losses don’t count. There’s no fantasy football element.
But while these games can’t compete with the real thing, I still love watching preseason action. It may be bad football, and the outcomes may not matter, but if you know what to look for, the preseason can be pretty damn fun. You just need to have a plan.
So, to help you avoid spending most of the night and the rest of the month bored out of your wits, I’ve put together a handy little checklist of things to look for—from position battles to points of interest—that make watching the preseason worth your time.
The Quarterback Battles
In Houston, we’ve got Tom Savage looking to hold off rookie Deshaun Watson for the starting gig. In Denver, it’s second-year challenger Paxton Lynch up against incumbent Trevor Siemian. For the Bears, it’s veteran Mike Glennon versus rookie Mitchell Trubisky, and in Cleveland, it’s a three-way battle featuring Cody Kessler, Brock Osweiler, and rookie DeShone Kizer. Even the Jets’ quarterback position could be interesting—will Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg push Josh McCown for the job? For a few of these guys, it’ll be our first chance to see them in pro uniforms, and for the others, it’s our opportunity to see if they’ve improved since last season.
Then there are teams with health concerns under center. Injuries mean that Andrew Luck and Joe Flacco may not be ready for Week 1, and that makes the preseason performances of Scott Tolzien and Stephen Morris (in Indianapolis) and Ryan Mallett, Dustin Vaughan, and Josh Woodrum (in Baltimore) interesting. Remember when Dak Prescott tore it up last preseason—both before and after Tony Romo went down with a back injury? That surprising development turned out to be a big deal for the Cowboys as the regular season rolled around.
For teams with pitched quarterback competitions, these games represent the first real live-fire tests each signal-caller will face this season: no more scrimmages, no more seven-on-seven drills. No more playing against teammates, and no more red noncontact jersey. Pass rushers and blitzers will show no restraint, and we’ll finally get a chance to see who can stand in the pocket and deliver a pass downfield in the face of pressure.
Key Depth-Chart Battles
The majority of the starter jobs on most teams are already locked up, and veteran players entrenched at their positions won’t see much of the field outside of the traditional “dress rehearsal” in the third preseason game. But there are always a few position groups still up for grabs on every squad, and those battles are worth focusing in on because every snap becomes important, and every play can be a make-or-break moment.
For the Cowboys, there’s still competition for a few roles in the secondary, with four rookies in Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods, and Marquez White all vying for starting jobs. For the Bills, the battle among receivers is wide open, with rookie Zay Jones up against a bevy of free-agent additions in Corey Brown, Andre Holmes, Jeremy Butler, and Anquan Boldin. For the Seahawks, just about every spot on the offensive line is still up in the air, and for the Cardinals, starter spots in the secondary, linebacker corps, and defensive line remain in flux.
You’ll have to stay tuned in past the first quarter to catch a lot of these guys on the field. As the game goes on, focus in on the players fighting for the chance to play major snaps this year; you’ll see guys playing as fast and hard as anyone will during the regular season.
It’s Jay Cutler time in Miami, and it should be pretty entertaining to see him work to quickly sync up with pass catchers DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills, Jarvis Landry, and Julius Thomas before the season gets underway. It could be a beautiful thing in short spurts—Cutler’s best season came with head coach Adam Gase in 2015, and if you turn on your imagination, you can see a few of the pieces from that Chicago offense reflected in Miami. Say Parker does a passable Alshon Jeffery impersonation, and Thomas looks anything like Martellus Bennett? We might see some foreshadowing of what’s to come. Or, it might be terrible; in either case, it’s compelling.
If nothing else, have to admit the Dolphins are way more interesting with Cutler than Matt Moore— Gregg Rosenthal (@greggrosenthal) August 6, 2017
Past that must-see football, raise your hand if you can’t wait to see DeSean Jackson catch a deep ball from Jameis Winston. Who isn’t excited to see Tom Brady hit Brandin Cooks on a go-route down the sideline? Or watch Carson Wentz throw it up to Alshon Jeffery in the end zone? And we finally get to see Marshawn Lynch in silver and black; I don’t even care if he doesn’t carry the ball, that’s just going to be awesome.
We may not see much of those big-name, big-money free agents or trade additions until the regular season kicks off, but preseason games give some of the lower-level acquisitions on every squad the chance to find their footing in new schemes. From Oakland’s Cordarrelle Patterson, Detroit’s Jared Abbrederis, and Indianapolis’s Kamar Aiken fighting for roster spots or a role in their new teams’ passing attacks to Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee battling for snaps in the Patriots run game, the mid-to-latter parts of these exhibition games are prime times to watch these smaller-name guys in action. For some, a change of scenery could mean big things in 2017.
New Coaches and New Systems
Right off the bat, these games give us a glimpse of major scheme overhauls in action. Sure, no one’s running trick plays or game-planning to outmaneuver and outwit their opponent, so preseason football can’t tell us exactly how a team’s going to look when the games start to count. But it’s not like new coaches are trotting out some random offense either; these are foundational components of the systems they’ve installed, and these games can act as a little bit of a preview for the regular season. We got to see glimpses of the up-tempo, read-option-based offense Chip Kelly brought to Philly when he took over in preseason 2013 (and again with the 49ers last year), and we got a sneak peek of Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” experiment in Tennessee in last year’s preseason action.
This season, keep an eye on teams with new schemes. Will Buffalo’s talented personnel fit better in new head coach Sean McDermott’s 4-3 system? Moreover, will the Bills show off the beginnings of a new personality under their new coach—the departure from the hyper-aggressive, multiple looks under Rex Ryan and Rob Ryan to something more Panthersesque: boring schematically but based on disciplined and technique?
On the West Coast, a trio of squads will undergo major shifts under new leadership as well. How many exotic run-game formations and power-run plays will new Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn bring to Los Angeles? Of course, Philip Rivers is not a runner like Tyrod Taylor, so we may start to get a few answers on how different the offense under Ken Whisenhunt—a holdover from the previous regime—will be this season. As for their new crosstown brethren, can the youthful exuberance and offensive play-calling talent of Sean McVay turn the Rams offense into anything worth fearing? More importantly, will McVay’s understanding of spacing, tempo, and play-sequencing be enough to help Jared Goff, who was nothing short of terrible last season as a rookie? We’ll get some idea of this early on.
Then, finally, how much of a difference will Kyle Shanahan make on the San Francisco offense? We saw what he could do with one of the most talented groups in the league last season in Atlanta. Now we get to see what he can do with one of the least-talented squads.
Rookie Baptism by Fire
Speaking of new players and new coaches in new schemes, you can’t get any newer than the rookies suiting up for their first professional games this week. Will Browns top pick Myles Garrett bring speed off the edge or look out of his element? Will Bengals receiver John Ross overwhelm opposing corners with his 4.22 speed to get down the sideline for a long touchdown? Will Jaguars top pick Leonard Fournette truck-stick some hapless defender on his way to a big gain? Will Takk McKinley’s explosive athleticism provide a boost to Atlanta’s defense? Better yet, what will happen if Fournette meets McKinley on the field?! The Jaguars and Falcons play the final week of the preseason, and suddenly I’m way too excited for that game.
The preseason is the closest thing the NFL has to the NBA’s summer league. No one cares about the score. No one cares about the standings. Whether it’s watching Lonzo Ball light it up for 36 points and 11 assists or Christian McCaffrey juking some linebacker out of his jock for a big gain, what people want is exciting plays, and these exhibition games can provide plenty of them.
With a little luck, your team won’t need to rely heavily on any backups this year ... but that’s not how the NFL works. Football is a season-long battle of attrition, and a not-insignificant portion of the guys that you think are your team’s key starters this year—the guys that you’ve penciled in to lead your squad to Super Bowl glory—will end up hobbling around on the sideline or the injured reserve before it’s all said and done.
That means: Get excited when some second- or third-string running back dives into the end zone. Jump out of your seat and yell when some fourth-string receiver leaps over a defender to haul in a touchdown. High-five your friend when that fifth-string cornerback picks off a pass. Because some of these guys are going to end up getting major snaps in a key role this year. Making a big play or two in preseason action isn’t always going to win somebody a starting spot, but high-impact plays, whether it’s a touchdown or a turnover, carry a lot of weight with coaches. Every staff wants a team full of playmakers—and because winning is highly correlated to getting into the end zone and taking the ball away from the other team, standing out in those two areas could help a fourth-string player become a third-stringer, or a third-stringer become a backup. For all you fantasy football fanatics, it doesn’t hurt to keep track of big playmakers in the preseason too—you just might think about stashing that guy on your bench or putting him on your waiver-wire watch list.
The end result of preseason games and a team’s preseason record are both mostly pretty meaningless, but watching those second-, third-, and fourth-string units compete against their counterparts on opposing teams can tell you a lot about the quality of a team’s depth. Are those backup defenders flying around, making hits, and taking the ball away? Are those backups on offense running up and down the field and scoring points? At worst, that’s a good sign for the upcoming season, because odds are, a few of those guys are going to be in there when it matters.
The Bubble Watch
For fans of the 30 teams not featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks or Amazon’s All or Nothing, preseason games provide us our best chance to witness the hardships and strife—the real-life drama—that some of the no-name, back-of-roster players go through in order to make the team. You see them pour their heart out to make a garbage-time tackle in the fourth quarter. You see them jump up, fist-pumping—knowing that even if that play wasn’t enough to get them a spot on the roster, it could give them a chance somewhere else in the league.
For a lot of these guys, the most important snaps they take in these games come on special teams. If you key into these plays late in every preseason matchup, you’ll see guys clawing and scratching and giving it their all—because for roster-bubble players, the ability to run down the field and tackle a returner or set up a great block to spring their teammate for a big return is by far their best chance to win a roster spot.
This list is not guaranteed to cure preseason boredom. There are going to be a few plays that no one, not the most football-starved among us or even the players’ own families, can love and appreciate. That’s normal. But with this checklist in hand, we all can sit through an entire preseason game. We might even find the next four weeks enjoyable.