The NFL has managed to turn every football-adjacent event into a fan experience: the draft is a party; training camps are open to the public; tickets are sold to Super Bowl media day; and this year there was even a mini-hullaballoo around a coin flip to decide which teams would get the 14th and 15th picks in the draft. And yet nobody cares about the preseason, which contains actual football games.
There are, of course, reasons the league has these exhibitions. They help players tune up, and they help coaches and front offices evaluate some of the guys on their rosters. But basically everybody agrees that four preseason games is too many: they carry undue injury risk; there is little fan excitement; and the league’s beloved broadcast partners pawn off most of the games to local stations. The only people who benefit from these games are the owners, who often force season-ticket holders to purchase preseason games as well. And so we get half-assed battles between backups that aren’t representative of teams’ actual skill levels and exist primarily to make rich people slightly richer.
NFL preseason games are meant to be forgotten. I would like to remember them.
I went in search of the greatest preseason performances of all time. This was surprisingly difficult. For starters, few guys have played enough in the preseason to compile an impressive stat line. And statistics of preseason games just seem to vanish. Pro Football Reference, an immensely valuable godsend that I use in virtually every NFL article I write, doesn’t keep them; ESPN doesn’t tally yearly preseason data and offers preseason box scores since only 2014. The most reliable source of preseason data I found was NFL.com, which keeps yearly statistical leaders for every season since 2006 and includes preseason stats on players’ game logs. I could have searched through every individual box score from earlier seasons, but instead of spending a literal month of my life poring through preseason stats, I decided to limit my search to the period between 2006 and the present.
Almost every incredible preseason performance comes in either Week 1 of the preseason, when coaches play their starters for a series or two and then let backups play the rest of the way, or Week 4 of the preseason, when starters often don’t play at all, and historically rosters have been trimmed from 90 players to 75. (That’s no longer the case.)
Without further ado, here are the heroes of preseason. Some went on to play well in regular-season games; others have only this to show that they were once OK at football.
Stephen McGee, QB, Cowboys
September 2, 2010: 27-for-42 passing, 304 yards, one touchdown
August 11, 2011: 14-for-24 passing, 208 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, 25 rushing yards
McGee, who spent the entirety of his NFL career as the Cowboys’ third-best quarterback option behind Tony Romo and Jon Kitna, is a preseason legend. He finished third in the NFL in preseason passing yards in 2010 and led the league in the category in 2011. Since 2006, I can find only four 300-yard preseason passing games (including one from McGee) and six three-touchdown preseason games (including another from McGee). But it’s not just statistical excellence that sets McGee apart: He bravely led his Cowboys to majestic preseason victories.
McGee saw zero regular-season snaps as a rookie out of Texas A&M, but he got the opportunity to start and play the entirety of the team’s preseason finale against the Dolphins in 2010 while Romo wore street clothes. He responded by throwing for 304 yards, including a 43-yard touchdown pass to Sam Hurd, and led Dallas on a game-winning field goal drive.
The next year, McGee played for nearly the entire preseason opener against the Broncos. He threw three touchdown passes, culminating with a fourth-down score with 15 seconds to go and the subsequent game-winning two-point conversion:
(Thanks to that fan for his cinematography and his unbridled passion for preseason football.)
McGee played in only three regular-season games in his career, two of which came after Romo and Kitna both were injured to close a dismal 2010 campaign. In Week 16, he threw a go-ahead touchdown pass to Miles Austin with less than two minutes remaining against the Cardinals. In Week 17, he started and beat the Eagles by completing a touchdown pass to Jason Witten with a minute to go. McGee is the most clutch quarterback in NFL history; the catch is that this only applies to games that are meaningless.
Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
August 16, 2010: Six catches, 145 receiving yards, three touchdowns
By 2013, Cruz would be a Pro Bowler, a Super Bowl champion, and a player with a $43 million contract and a signature touchdown celebration. But in August 2010, he was an undrafted rookie out of UMass with a number reserved for extraneous and likely soon-to-be-cut receivers. And when a player with superstar talent gets to go against third-stringers, wild things happen:
The Jets and Giants normally play in Week 3 or 4 of every preseason, but in 2010 that matchup was moved to Week 1 of the preseason so that both teams could participate in the first game ever held in their new jointly shared stadium. It was aired on a preseason edition of Monday Night Football, so folks around the nation in desperate search of a football fix could watch it. And Cruz went off, opening the spaceship located a few miles from his childhood hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, with a bang. He caught two touchdown passes from backup Jim Sorgi and one from third-stringer Rhett Bomar.
The Jets were on Hard Knocks that season, so microphones caught then–head coach Rex Ryan fawning over the unknown receiver who destroyed his team. “I don’t know who number three is,” he told Giants coach Tom Coughlin after the game, “but holy shit.”
I can’t find any other three-touchdown receiving games in the preseason, and I highly doubt that anybody has managed four. This is probably a record. It’s also the rare preseason game that forms part of a meaningful NFL narrative. “It’s never going to escape me,” Cruz said in 2014.
Brett Hundley, QB, Packers
September 3, 2015: 16-for-23 passing, 236 yards, four touchdowns, 12 rushing yards
In his two years serving as Aaron Rodgers’s backup, Hundley has amassed two regular-season completions. In the Packers’ 2015 preseason finale, the then-rookie from UCLA threw for twice as many touchdowns:
My search found no other four-touchdown preseason games. That this outing came against the Saints shouldn’t be surprising—this defense was the worst in the NFL in 2015, allowing more points and passing touchdowns than any other team in the league, resulting in the midseason firing of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
See? You can learn stuff from preseason football!
Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys
August 31, 2006: 30-for-45 passing, 349 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions, seven rushing yards
Eleven years ago, Romo wasn’t a beloved Dallas legend. He was Drew Bledsoe’s backup, so Bill Parcells didn’t mind playing him for long enough to record 349 passing yards in a preseason game, the most I found in my search. Romo recorded 99 of those yards in a 15-minute overtime session. That’s right: This was the rarest of football disasters, a preseason tie.
Cowboys fans probably didn’t know much about Romo at the time, as he attempted zero passes during his first three regular seasons in Dallas. But they got a glimpse of the clutch quarterback he would become in this game, as he moved the ball 80 yards over the final six minutes of regulation before throwing a game-tying touchdown to Tyson Thompson with 17 seconds to go.
Now, this didn’t have to be a game-tying touchdown. When a team scores a touchdown in the preseason to cut its deficit to one, the head coach will normally go for two, because the game result doesn’t matter and the important thing is that everybody stays healthy. But Parcells, for whatever reason, did not subscribe to that logic. I love how the announcers assumed Romo was staying on the field to attempt a two-point conversion, only to realize that he was the Cowboys’ holder. Little did they know that 11 years later, every Cowboys fan on the planet would retain full knowledge that Romo was the team’s holder in 2006.
Kicker Mike Vanderjagt aced that extra point, but missed two chip shots in overtime to allow for the tie. Mike Vanderjagt was an asshole.
Mack Brown, RB, Redskins
August 31, 2016: 19 carries, 149 rushing yards, one touchdown
We don’t see a lot of huge numbers for running backs in preseason because it’s rare for a team give one guy a bunch of carries. But Brown entered the final game of Washington’s 2016 preseason needing to make moves. He was the team’s fourth-string running back, behind Matt Jones, Chris Thompson, and Robert “Fat Rob” Kelley on the depth chart. So he busted out one of the most brilliant rushing performances in preseason history, including this 60-yard touchdown run:
On that play alone, the Florida alum showed so much: the shiftiness and foot speed to send defenders flying the wrong way; the patience to let blocks develop; the strength to stiff-arm would-be tacklers; the breakaway speed to create separation. Brown looked dominant, finishing the 2016 preseason as the NFL’s leading rusher with 227 yards.
Regardless, Washington cut him a few days later. He’d earn his way back onto the roster by October, and recorded a 61-yard rushing touchdown in Week 16 against the Bears. It looked a lot like Brown’s preseason score.
David Clowney, WR, Jets
August 8, 2008: Four catches, 163 receiving yards, two touchdowns
One of the top two Clowneys in NFL history, David snagged a pair of 70-plus-yard touchdown passes from Brett Ratliff in the Jets’ preseason opener against the Browns in 2008:
These are the types of scores where the receiver is so dang open that it’s tough to tell if he has preposterous speed or if there’s been a major defensive miscommunication. That performance might have been enough to put Clowney in the mix to catch passes from the other player named Brett the Jets employed in 2008, but sadly, Clowney broke his collarbone in the team’s second preseason game and missed most of the season. After this two-touchdown preseason game, Clowney managed only one regular-season touchdown in his career. The New York Post dubbed him “Joey Preseason.”
A.J. Trapasso, P, Titans
I didn’t dig through stats for this one. I just wanted to praise the punter who had the most thrilling preseason in NFL history.
The Titans signed Trapasso in the 2009 offseason, and it seems that just about everybody knew he was not as good as the team’s primary punter, Craig Hentrich. NFL teams generally do not carry two punters into the regular season. His fate was basically sealed.
But that didn’t mean he couldn’t have fun during his month of NFL glory. In Tennessee’s preseason opener, the Hall of Fame Game against the Bills, Trapasso brilliantly executed the best fake punt I’ve ever seen:
This is an And1 Mixtape tour–level fake punt. It’s dumb for a team to run a fake punt in the preseason, allowing its regular-season opponents to see one of its tricks. But if that trick is dependent on a soon-to-be-cut backup punter having a filthy, irreplicable, behind-the-back crossover? Go for it. (Bengals punter Kevin Huber went behind the back to avoid a blocked punt in a recent preseason game, although he was tackled moments later.)
Two weeks after this fake, the Titans played the Cowboys in the first exhibition game in Jerry Jones’s billion-dollar mechastadium. This stadium features an enormous video board that hangs over the middle of the field. If you’re a punter with little to no chance of making a roster, and you’re playing in a venue with an enormous video board in the middle of the field, you have no choice: You have to hit it.
Jones was unhappy about this. He vigorously defended the board’s placement, stating that a punter had to intentionally aim at the board to hit it. He was probably right. Trapasso instantly boomed a kick that was still rising as it hit the board, but in the eight years of regular-season games since, only one punt has hit the board, and it just grazed it. (It has been hit two other times in preseason, once by Cowboys punter Chris Jones and once by Texans punter Shane Lechler. Lechler admitted he had made a bet that he could hit it.)
Regardless, the Titans cut Trapasso. They later signed him to their practice squad when Hentrich hurt his leg, but the team turned to Reggie Hodges and Brett Kern to play in actual games when Hentrich couldn’t. Trapasso also had brief stints with the Jets, Buccaneers, and Broncos, although he never made an active roster.
He never played in a regular-season NFL game, but he had a legendary trick play and pissed off a billionaire. He had a more successful career than many actual NFL players, and remains our preseason hero of heroes.