With the annual Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, taking place last Saturday, live-action football has officially returned to the television set, which also signifies the first week of NFL preseason football on the horizon.
So what value can we the fans and media extract from this initial sampling of game-day competition?
The first preseason game for each team typically serves as a long-awaited platform for the coaching staff to get a nice, hard look at the newer additions to the roster. This includes rookies, free agents and waiver-wire pickups. An NFL roster during the first preseason game is inflated to 90 individuals.
Week 1 also gives the coaches and players some much-needed live-action reps working basic plays within the system as well as an opportunity for improving the timing and rhythm across the board. This includes anything from offensive linemen working on their communication to the fundamentals of getting the snaps and handoffs perfected.
From a coach’s perspective, Week 1 of the preseason is all about being conservative—which doesn’t lend itself to revealing a whole lot for fans—but it can offer a preview of what’s to come. This is applicable to both game-planning and playing time for established players.
Does this conservative mindset mean the players and coaches are not concerned with winning a game which holds no sway on the season’s outcome? Absolutely not.
The competitive nerve center of both coaches and players alike is rooted too deeply in their makeup to be apathetic about winning a football game played in front of millions of people. Players inherently want to win, whether it’s a drill in practice or a meaningless preseason game. They have been bred and conditioned to compete.
Coaches are equally as fierce when it comes to competition, but they’re certainly not willing to compromise regular-season success by overexposing key veterans or the playbook during the first week of the preseason. The last thing they want to see is a pivotal player get seriously injured in a statistically meaningless game.
For those organizations with new head coaches, there is only a finite number of opportunities for these coaches and players to get valuable reps against live action.
It’s worth noting that NFL training camps rarely allow full contact during practice. Coaches generally consider intersquad tackling too risky and only allow for a few reps of this each summer. With this being the norm for training camp, it becomes increasingly more important for these players to take advantage of preseason games and the rare full-contact experience it provides them with.
As far as the fans are concerned, this first game often provides a glimpse of the type of offensive and defensive systems teams with new head coaches will be running—but keep in mind this would be the watered-down version of the system.
If you happen to be a fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the mystery behind new coordinator Jeff Tedford’s offensive philosophy will finally be revealed after an offseason of secrecy and speculation. It will be nice to have some idea of what this offensive unit will look like.
Having played for Coach Tedford in college, I can say that we can expect an emphasis on having a balanced attack between the run and the pass.
Week 1 of the preseason also gives us that long-anticipated first glimpse of our favorite rookies in NFL action. If a youngster manages to shine under the summer lights, don’t pass it off as luck. When it comes to playmaking ability, what you see in preseason can be a promising indicator of a young player’s potential.
However, it’s important to understand the difference between a guy who makes a few wide-open catches and one who actually makes some incredible individual plays. Those players who can beat their opponent with some consistency are likely going excel at the NFL level.
That first preseason game will also reveal which rookies are not quite ready to break out.
The transition to the NFL is nothing to take lightly. As such, it should come as no surprise that rookies tend to struggle early in their careers. This is partly why preseason games are so valuable for younger players. It provides them with exposure to the speed of the game. It’s important to understand that even an NFL preseason game is significantly faster and more challenging than college competition.
In the end, the season is long and incredibly difficult to predict. Wins and losses in preseason should have little bearing on the success or failures of the regular season.
Considering the buzz surrounding this first week of NFL action, one thing we can confidently take away from it is that football is by far the most popular sport in this country.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL football player who currently writes for Bleacher Report.