Questions over the necessity of preseason NFL games have persisted since the founding of the league. But let me assure you, if you think it's bad now, it was definitely worse not all that long ago.
In 1977, my first year as a full-time writer at The Sun Chronicle, there were six preseason games each year. Yes, six. Just imagine, a full month and a half of playing games (and paying to see them) that didn't count in the standings!
Fortunately, if you're 40 years old or younger, you've been spared any memories of that. It was an interminable buildup to a season that was just 14 games long, and the practice ended with the addition of the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the league in 1978, when the current format of four preseason games and 16 regular-season games was adopted.
There have been several proposals to alter that format, but all of them have failed. The most recent was to expand the regular-season to 18 games and to reduce the preseason to two games, with possibly the addition of less-structured scrimmages to the mix. The players' association has opposed any expansion of the regular season on the grounds that their salaries would not be increased even though more games that count would be played, so here we are, stuck in a rut for the 37th straight year.
You have to be absolutely nutty about football to embrace the preseason games. You don't see your favorite players for more than a few plays until the third game, which has evolved into the "dress rehearsal" for the regular season. Then just as your appetite for real competition is on the verge of being satisfied, the starters disappear again in the final tuneup. Coaches have become more wary of losing their marquee players for the season in the last exhibition game, so they keep the stars as far away from the stadium as possible while the fans continue to pay full freight to get inside it.
It doesn't seem fair, but what's the sense in complaining about it? You may as well complain about the weather. You can't do anything about that, either.
The truth is, coaches believe the league still needs the preseason games. They believe that you can go over everything you can in the classrooms and the practice fields, but there's no other way to tell if the teaching has done its job unless it's executed properly on the field - and in the four preseason games, that's the closest possible approximation of real game action.
The games are needed by more than just the players, too.
Unless you've been living under a rock for the last two weeks, you know that preseason games all over the NFL have been conducted under a steady blizzard of yellow flags. The officials have chosen this year to instruct players and coaches in the latest interpretations of rules about illegal contact in the secondary against wide receivers, and it has made the games almost unwatchable.
In last Friday night's preseason game at Gillette Stadium, 21 penalties were assessed in the game between the Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles. Six more were called and not accepted. That basically added almost an extra half-hour to a game that still meant absolutely nothing in the standings.
The suggestion is that the only way the players will know how the officials will call the games in the regular season is for the penalties to be called without reservation or hesitation in the preseason. But most everyone believes that once the regular season begins, the flurry of flags will dissipate and games will be officiated with expedience in mind - even though the officials are saying that the calls they're making now are the ones they'll be making all the way to the Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz.
Gee, I hope not. But that's another story.
The problem here is the use of preseason games as on-field laboratories. I'd like to think that a lot of things could be accomplished just as well, and with less aggravation to the viewing public, in two-team scrimmages or in practices. Officiating crews often visit training camps to update coaches and players on the yearly rule changes or "points of emphasis," as they call them, but perhaps that role could be expanded in the form of more on-field work when it's determined that a redefinition of a rule is so important, it has to be called closely before the league believes the point has been driven home to the players and coaches.
They are certainly getting the point across in these preseason games. I had nightmares that began with the words, "illegal contact, defense" after Friday night's game. And just about everyone who had something to say to me about the game admitted they found it unwatchable by the time the second quarter rolled around.
Even the players of both teams responded negatively. It was at some point in the third quarter when I realized that both teams had simply stopped playing pass defense because no one knew if what they've been trained to do was going to result in a penalty flag.
It needs to be done, I suppose. Preseason games are part of every major professional sport and they basically serve as the proving ground for the product that goes on the diamond, court, ice or gridiron when the games start to count.
But I just wish that people didn't have to pay to watch them - especially when the games include obvious wrinkles that don't enhance your viewing pleasure, and that you'll never see in a regular-season game.