With preseason football now in full swing, let's take a look from the coach's perspective, where wins and losses may not quantify the unique value each game has on the development of the franchise and its players.
This is the time when the foundation is laid, positions solidified and, in some cases, a star emerges from obscurity.
Coaches may ease off one another in pregame agreements, but the desire to win is etched deeply within their DNA.
Do Coaches Really Try for the Preseason Victory?
Heck yeah they do; but not at the cost of risking injury to key players or revealing too much schematically for other teams to study on tape. Essentially, coaches want to win these games by riding the backs of the young, unproven talent still trying to make a name for themselves in the NFL.
According to some number crunching by SportingCharts.com, there is no correlation between preseason and regular-season success. In fact, according to their chart, teams that go undefeated in the preseason have an average win percentage of less than 50 percent.
Preseason Record %
Average Regular-Season Record %
Despite the perceived lack of value for a preseason victory, we must not discount the innate competitive drive residing deep within the framework of every NFL coach who despises the taste of defeat, even if the loss means little to nothing in terms of the season.
Coaches have been taught to think a certain way when it comes to winning, so it isn’t so easy to simply turn such a deep-rooted instinct off at the flip of a switch.
As former head coach Herm Edwards so memorably put it: “Hello! You play to win the game!”
Unfortunately, Edwards wasn’t so good at that part of coaching—winning games, that is. As a result, we get to enjoy his meaningless observations and insight on ESPN every week.
It was always fun to watch the coaching staff in meeting rooms during film sessions getting extremely excited over nice plays against opponents in preseason action. From their perspective, every great play was almost as if they were discovering another tool to be utilized in countless ways.
Of course, this can also go the other way, where a lack of big plays can leave a coaching staff feeling like they’re carrying a knife into a gunfight.
Preseason Games More Important Than Just Winning
Although the preseason may not count, rest assured, it does matter. So what exactly are coaches looking for?
This time of year, coaches around the league finally get to play with all their exciting new toys like a kid on Christmas impatiently waiting to explore every new gift, enjoying hours of uninterrupted thrills. This is essentially the attitude of coaches entering the preseason.
First-round draft picks are like that toy you wanted all year long and would put first on the Christmas list. Of course, this toy was usually the most expensive one on the list, which would have you nervously wondering whether or not you would find it under the tree on Christmas day.
I can recall numerous times where the coaches would sit around in admiration of the hot new rookie on the team. The way he jumps and moves, the shape of his body, his speed—nothing gets these coaches more fired up than seeing that top pick in real game-time action after three months of anticipation.
Oakland's rookie head coach Dennis Allen had this to say about preseason games in an interview for Raiders.com:
Well you play the game under the lights and that’s when it counts so we are going to weigh these very heavily. It’s kind of like being in college and you get some homework assignments; that’s like practice. They count and they’re part of you grade but you’re going to take your midterm and you’re going to take your final and those are going to weigh the heaviest. That’s kind of the way I look at that.
Few things make a coach more gratified than to see top-notch execution by his younger guys looking to make the roster and contribute. These names who shine bright and guide their respective teams to victory reflect highly on a coaching staff's ability to do what they get paid to do: coach.
Most of the time, the men out there finishing games in the second half were brought into camp at the advisement of position coaches and guys who saw something in a player that other teams apparently didn’t. So when these players demonstrate NFL-caliber ability, that success reflects positively on the coaching staff’s ability to not only spot talent, but to harvest it as well.
Oftentimes before a preseason matchup, the head coaches of both teams will get together on a phone call to discuss some dos and don’ts of the upcoming game.
This type of gentlemen’s agreement is common in the NFL, as most teams are barely ready for game-time action in terms of installation of their playbooks. So, as a way to not embarrass each other or perhaps to get a clearer look at their rosters, the coaches will help each other out and hold back from certain packages and plays.
In a recent example, Marvin Lewis called Rex Ryan before the game to hash over some details, one of which was to request that he not run the Wildcat against him. Ryan obliged his former defensive coordinator from their time in Baltimore, according to the New York Post.
A more famous example of this agreement-gone-wrong would be just before Jim Harbaugh’s head coaching debut with the 49ers, where he reportedly failed to call back Saints head coach Sean Payton before their preseason matchup. As rumor has it, then-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams decided to retaliate against the perceived disrespect by blitzing 18 times in the first half alone.
This is extremely unconventional for a first game of the preseason, considering teams usually have less than two weeks of offense installed at the time. Picking up various blitz packages is one of the hardest things to learn in an offense, especially when an entirely new system is being installed without the assistance of an NFL offseason due to the lockout.
Sean Payton denied retaliating to the disregard to protocol.
Jim Harbaugh asked his brother, head coach of the Ravens, John Harbaugh about this agreement, and he also said he wasn’t aware of any protocol.
Jim concluded by saying, “Even if there was, we wouldn't do it, anyway. We ask no quarter, we get no quarter. That's how we approach things."
Making up is hard to do... or is it?
Each Game Has its Own Value
The first two games are typically the most important for those players on the roster bubble trying to make the final roster cut. These games are also crucial for designating starters in close position battles.
Typically, starters get the bulk of their exhibition playing time during the third preseason game. This is often referred to as the “dress rehearsal.” Traditionally, the starters will play the entire first half, and in some cases, well into the third quarter.
The thought behind this is to give guys at least one good game to shake off the rust and get that much closer to being in true football shape. Then they're given a week to recover and heal in preparation for the regular season.
The fourth game is unfortunately the most worthless of all preseason games. Veterans get very little playing time, the final roster usually has all but been finalized, and everyone seems ready to get onto the regular season, where games really matter.
Many young guys are forced to use this game as their last chance to prove their worth as a viable NFL athlete, but more often than not, this final game is mostly an audition for other teams as opposed to the team they were in camp with.
By the conclusion of the preseason, coaches’ primary goals are to have a virtually injury-free, established 53-man roster, discover a few diamonds in the rough and gain invaluable game-time experience and reps, while also improving the “meat and potatoes” plays, which will become the foundations of each team’s strategic approach to victory.
Essentially, for coaches, preseason is the main opportunity to focus on the players by developing talent and teaching the game. Come regular season, they must switch almost exclusively into game-planning mode.