To watch or even pay for NFL preseason games may feel somewhat meaningless with their anticlimactic tendencies and empty stadiums by the fourth quarter.
But those who really understand this sport know the most valuable time in a preseason game just so happens to be when the fewest people are watching. Nobody appreciates this more than the hundreds of hopefuls each year risking life and limb for a chance to play among the best in the business.
As a guy who has scratched, clawed, sacrificed and nearly paralyzed himself in order to make an NFL dream a reality, I know firsthand what preseason football is all about.
During the preseason, it hardly matters whether you win or lose, though coaches and players will forever struggle to turn off that competitive instinct deep within their psyche. For them, winning is eternally paramount.
There’s a reason the games throughout August generally appear as a disheveled, sludgy product from the perspective of the eager fans expecting to enjoy professional-caliber athletes executing at the highest level.
Seasoned veterans with well-cultivated skill sets and limited tolerance for unnecessary physical abuse surely find preseason games more inconsequential than those younger fish fighting to stave off the sharks. There is no doubt many who fit this description are often inactive for such events. Or perhaps they play more cautious hoping to preserve their bodies for a grueling 16-game season.
This luxury is for a privileged few who have produced at a high level for several years.
Though these elder players may not be fighting for their jobs—unless they’re at the twilight of their career trying to prove they still have it—they still rely on the game-like speeds of preseason to work on play timing, situational football and proper technique.
Furthermore, the full-contact action helps harden the body before more gruesome collisions occur as the season unfolds. For them, preseason is an important opportunity to finalize their preparation for the season—to shake off the rust and build on-field rapport with key contributors.
As previously alluded to, the final outcomes of these contests carry no weight heading into the regular season, but that may just be the only element lacking significance in regard to this process.
In this ultimate reality show known as the NFL, preseason games serve as the preliminary elimination rounds for all the newcomers looking to get their foot in the door.
This is where we the viewers get to observe subpar talent go head-to-head against established NFL athletes. These are young kids barely removed from parental supervision who must suddenly prove they belong in a league regularly weeding out some of the “baddest” men to ever play the game.
Does anyone see Randy Moss getting any job offers from NFL teams? Only one man in the history of the sport has accumulated more touchdown receptions than this unemployed legend.
Didn’t quarterback Vince Young single-handedly carry his Texas Longhorns past USC’s duo of Heisman Trophy winners in one of the greatest national championships games ever?
Who in the NFL is requesting the services of Mr. Young these days? The names which demonstrate the cut-throat nature of this league come in abundance.
By the end of those four seemingly meaningless games, many familiar faces will be gone, replaced by fresh, young kids loaded with hope, infused with energy and far too naïve to truly grasp the deciduous nature of their environment.
By the arrival of Week 1, the cream has fully ascended to the top of every organization. These are the few who have made it—the victors of hard-fought battles decided between the lines.
Not only are these men capable of impressive athletic feats, they’ve also demonstrated proficiency in split-second decision-making, unnatural tolerance to pain, mental fortitude and the strength to hold their own against the most physically imposing men on Earth.
Just what and/or who is discovered during preseason can not only shape the outcome of a season, but it can influence an organization for decades to come. Just look at players like Russell Wilson and Victor Cruz. Each of these men made a name for themselves during preseason action, battling against all odds.
From the perspective of the dispensable cog in the much bigger NFL machine, preseason competition can change lives one play at a time. In some cases, it takes only one play and you’re out of time. For those tortured souls clinging to the bottom of the roster, any given play can be their last.
Every play is graded throughout the preseason process. Film of these games is evaluated with a fine-toothed comb and dissected by coaches at every level. Even coaches and personnel members from other organizations have their eye on you, just in case you tickle their fancy and they happen to have a need for you. As an unproven nobody, the preseason stage is the audition of a lifetime.
To make it in the NFL, you must first survive those oh-so-critical preseason games.
With that in mind, in-game opportunities can come at any time, but they’re often brief and far too infrequent.
For those players who require the rhythm of a game to get comfortable—forget it, this rarely happens. Preseason reps are isolated plays with little chance to find your groove. Just when you get comfortable, either the game ends or you’re subbed out for the next guy looking to make his mark.
The only way I managed to make the Raiders’ active roster my rookie season was by maximizing nearly every chance I got.
Being an undersized, mildly athletic linebacker-defensive end hybrid on an Al Davis defense is not exactly a promising proposition. I was not a player he cared for in war-room discussions and clearly didn’t fit the mold of his normal tendencies.
In my first preseason game, I managed to make a great play on a kickoff, running over a blocker on my way to a tackle. In the next game, I was able to put consistent pressure on the quarterback, flashing talent as a pass-rusher. By the third and fourth games, I was making big plays both on special teams and on defense. In all, I racked up 2.5 sacks in only four quarters of defensive snaps that preseason.
Had I not produced at such a high level in those games, I surely would have been on the cutting block, which is exactly what happened to me the following preseason.
Players might be able to spout off every answer in a meeting room, they may even look solid in practice, but if those things don’t translate into game-like situations, there’s little chance of survival.
The true functional value of preseason football is built upon the delicate yet dynamic process of team building, along with everything which goes into it.
Ryan Riddle is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a contributor to Footballguys.com. Before B/R, Ryan played at the University of California. Afterward, he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and spent time with the New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Avengers.