But what about a guy like my old teammate Chuck Darby?
Darby was an ultra-productive but undersized defensive lineman coming from HBCU South Carolina State University. Because of this, his route to sticking in the NFL was a circuitous one. First he earned a spot on the practice squad. Then that following offseason, he went to play football in Barcelona for NFL Europe. When that season was over, he hopped on a plane to come back stateside just in time for training camp.
The guy was heading into the camp as the lowest man on the totem pole after already having played or practiced football for 12 months straight.
But for the fact that he had an opportunity to go out and play in those preseason games, Darby's story likely would have been a short one. Instead, he went out there and made the most of his playing time. He made quite an impression on the coaching staff in the process.
Nobody had a ruler out there on the field, so it didn't matter how short he was. What mattered was that he made plays. Why this story sticks out to me is because after all that, Chuck eventually ended up starting in and winning one Super Bowl and playing in another for two different teams.
Ask him if he thinks preseason games are important.
Preseason games are, in fact, essential for most NFL players. No matter how efficiently a coaching staff designs a practice, nothing can replicate a game. These games are especially significant for players who have not yet established themselves, players trying to move up the depth charts and older players trying to hang on to their job.
From my personal experience, these games help players who are already in the rotation have the opportunity to earn a starting spot. That's exactly what happened in 1999 when I was able to unseat Regan Upshaw as the starting right defensive end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It's also, unfortunately for me, exactly what happened the next year in 2000, when Marcus Jones supplanted me as the starter for the same position.
Would either promotion (and conversely, demotion) have happened without our performances during the preseason games?
I highly doubt it.
Anybody can "tag" someone in practice and pretend it's really a tackle. Anybody can win a pass-rush drill and pretend it's really a sack. Anybody can catch a ball in seven-on-seven drill and pretend it's a real touchdown.
It is a different thing altogether to actually pull those feats off in a real game.
When you can go out and perform under the lights with everybody watching and transfer the things you have done from the practice field over to a preseason game, that's when you earn the trust of your coaches and teammates. How many times have you seen or heard practice reports where a guy is just tearing it up, but when the preseason games start, they look lost and over-matched?
It seems to happen every year. And a coaching staff needs to know if an unproven guy has "stage fright" before they decide to keep them on the team.
On the flip side, there are always guys who are only decent in practice but show up big-time during the preseason games. I'm sure most coaches would rather have a guy that does both, but given the choice, I'm betting the majority will go with the guy who performs well in games rather than the guy who can only show up during practices.
Most football fans are familiar with the story of how Terrell Davis first made a name for himself in the NFL. The guy wasn't assured of making the team as a late-round draft pick. All he did was go out there and almost decapitate a guy on kickoff in a preseason game; all of a sudden everyone took notice.
All that guy did was eventually go on to rush for over 2,000 yards one year and help Denver win rings in back-to-back Super Bowls.
Could he have made that impression if there weren't any preseason games?
Of course not.
You would be hard-pressed to find a head coach who will have his team go full speed on kickoff and kickoff return in practice. You don't want to risk any of those guys getting hurt on plays that generally involve a lot of pain.
As the last spots on the roster come down to special teams play, however, if the young guys never get a chance to do it live, then its almost impossible to prove to the coaches that they can do it and do it well.
So yes, preseason NFL games are necessary and, in many ways, very beneficial to the majority of players.
Yes, the established players probably hate training camp more than the undrafted rookies, but many of them don't spend a lot of time in preseason games anyway.
There is also the fact that veteran players get paid a fraction of a regular-season game check for preseason games. This, even though fans pay close to the same amount for tickets to those games as they do for regular-season games. That speaks more to the fairness of the revenue-sharing model than the importance of the games themselves, however.
Preseason games provide prime opportunities for young, unproven players to show they belong in the NFL, and for some grizzled veterans, the opportunity to show they can still get it done. Take those opportunities away, and some good players will fall through the cracks, and the game will be worse off for it.