The first preseason game is in the books and many Colts fans are already preparing to pack it in on the whole season. This happens every year and I would like to take a moment to go through the reasons why putting too much stock in the preseason is just plain silly.
The Preseason Doesn’t Count
As fans, we know this. At least we should. But you need to understand that this is a big deal. Remember that old saying that football is 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical?
Well, if you know that the preseason is ultimately just a different way to practice and for coaches to evaluate you, wouldn’t that tend to color the amount of effort you put in? The football season is long, and veteran players know this. They know that giving their all during the preseason might mean it isn’t there to give come playoff time.
Also, coaches jealously guard their playbooks in the hopes of maintaining any little advantage they can on the field. That means that they are only running plays of the most mundane variety during the preseason. Given these things, it is not hard to see how a game can end up as ugly as most of them are. But that isn’t all.
It Is Not About Winning
NFL players and coaches are some of the most competitive people in the world. So, to some small degree, they always want to win. However, preseason for NFL teams isn’t about winning. Or rather, it is definitely about winning, just not those games.
The preseason is the first time fans have gotten to see their team play against other teams since February if they were lucky. Naturally, we want to see a competitive game where our team comes out on top. The problem is that we have the expectation that this game is intended to be competitive. It isn’t.
Coaches use the preseason to determine who should make their 53-man roster. They are evaluating individuals on how they execute the plays called, whether they know what their assignments are, and how they look against NFL caliber competition. Since we don’t know the play calls this leaves us at a pretty big disadvantage for evaluation purposes. We might think a player looked really good, but it is possible they completely missed their assigned job and got lucky.
For example, if a wide receiver runs the wrong route and the corner blows the coverage, leaves them open and they get a long reception, that is not necessarily indicative of a great play, right? Against starting competition, you need your receivers running the correct routes. While we as fans may see that play and be thrilled, the coaches may see a lucky mistake. For a player on the bubble that can be huge. In short, during the preseason it is not about winning, it’s about doing your job and proving you can be a reliable contributor.
Because coaches want to evaluate individuals and also avoid injuries to key players, we see almost nothing from our starters. This was obvious on the Colts offense. Due to existing injuries, many did not play at all. Those who did play were not in long before calling it a day. If the coaching staff knows what they have in a player, for instance, T.Y. Hilton, they aren’t going to spend a lot of time risking them in a meaningless game. Hilton has proven himself and they know he will show up in a big way once the regular season arrives. This leaves us watching a lot of very inexperienced players attempting to carve out a spot on the roster for themselves. Understandably, that makes for rough viewing. Many of those players won’t even be making the roster.
What You Can Evaluate
While the preseason doesn’t matter in terms of how the scheme looks, or what the score is, there are definitely some things you can evaluate about players in the preseason. Technique and skill areas are good places to look if you want to get an idea about how individuals might perform come the regular season.
For example, we learned that Malik Hooker is more willing to come up and get physical with ball carriers than many thought he would be. We had heard good buzz out of camp on several of the cornerbacks and saw that come game time, many of them struggled to use good technique to make tackles. Despite getting consistent praise from some, we saw Phillip Walker struggle with accuracy and decision making at the quarterback position. His footwork was poor and he tended to scramble out of the pocket before any pressure even reached him.
There was a more physical look in general from our first team defense than in a long while, which carried forward the trend from training camp and was encouraging. John Simon made a heads up play for an interception off of a great hit by Vontae Davis. Quincy Wilson showed that he is a talented player, but has a lot to learn to be a starter.
In short, there was a lot to be learned about this Colts team from watching the preseason game. But most of it was learned by watching the individual players closely. For example, I saw one play from Sean Spence where he looked like he was running in sand. If I had only seen that one play I would have left believing he deserved to have fallen so far on the Colts depth chart. However, there were a host of other plays where he showed up in a big way and made an impact. That’s why cherry-picking stats and individual plays is a bad idea.
The point here is to take the preseason for what it is. It is not real football. It is a type of scrimmage that allows coaches to evaluate their players in different ways as they ramp up to the regular season in preparation for final roster cut downs. If that’s the lens you view it from, you can enjoy it without developing an intense case of chicken little syndrome.
It wasn’t pretty. As a whole, the game was hard to watch and probably won’t be much better over the next three weeks. My recommendation is to pick a handful of players on both sides of the ball and watch for them specifically. Watch how they play and look for things that show they can stand out in a positive way. Examine their technique, how they compare to others on the field, and whether they seem to be winning their one-on-one matchups. And look on the bright side, real football is not far away.