Like nearly all NFL fans, I’m eagerly awaiting opening kickoff on Sept. 10. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans will launch the regular season in what figures to be a good, old-fashioned battle, where you can feel the hits in your living room and hear the impact echo into the next day.
Until then. unlike most football fans, I’m perfectly content to watch pre-season football. It’s not that I’m an intense NFL obsessive—at least not in comparison to many people I know who are arguing about the defensive-line reserves for teams that they won’t even play this season. However, I’ve found the way to make NFL pre-season games fun.
You can’t watch these games the same way we watch regular season games, which is to focus on several star players like quarterback, wide receiver or running back, and their performances. If a team wins, it’s usually because of the work in the trenches. Only Barry Sanders could break a long run without blocking, and no QB can consistently complete touchdown passes while lying on his back from the impact of a 320-pound defender moving at full speed. But that’s a pet peeve for later.
Also, the stars don’t matter in a pre-season game. You know New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees can complete a pass to wide receiver Lance Moore because he did it 79 times last season. We don’t need exhibition games to confirm that for us. The main reason that top players like Brees even appear in August games is to appease the season-ticket holders who are often forced to pony up for these meaningless games as part of the ticket package.
Only worry about the fourth quarter. This is where dreams are at stake. Most NFL teams know their top 35-40 guys going into training camp. The battle in August is for those final 15 or so roster slots, and each week, a bunch of players who have probably dreamed of playing in the NFL since they were little are playing to keep that dream alive. They are well-aware that twice during the pre-season, a bunch of players from each team will be cleaning out their lockers and thinking of applying at UPS or a gym in their hometown. Or they will be calling their college adviser to see if their scholarship will enable them to finish their degree.
Currently, other than the NFL, there aren’t many other places to professionally play football. The NFL Europa is no more; the Arena Football League canceled its 2009 season and is working on becoming viable again for 2010. So for most NFL hopefuls, the next few weeks mark a do-or-die scenario. Those dreams have already been downsized from starring in the Super Bowl to just making the team. In the fourth quarter, after the starters have made their cameos and the role players have taken their reps, those dreams are on the line. A lineman making a sack or a receiver making a stunning catch is only part of the drama. Coaches study film exhaustively. If a running back identifies a blitzing linebacker and blocks him effectively, it will get noticed. If a special-teams player clears out two defenders to create a lane for the kick-returner, then that will get noticed even if the running room isn’t used.
The drama intensifies each week as players get closer and closer to making an NFL roster. Most teams open training camp with 80 players and cut down to 65 during the pre-season and to 53 shortly after the final exhibition game. Some of the players who get released in the final cutdown will make other rosters, but for most, it’s the end of the line.
Goodbye, NFL. Hello, real life.
That’s why the fourth quarters of pre-season football games are fun for me. They are contested with the urgency of the fourth quarter of a tied Super Bowl, but by players with less talent, units with less polish. The atmosphere among the fans is borderline lethargic, and since the announcers lack anecdotes supplied by team’s PR offices, they simply struggle to identify who’s on the field. For me, it’s better than any reality show, and I’m surprised that the NFL hasn’t tried to capitalize on the drama of this moment. It has all the drama of winning and losing with very different stakes.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.