After the drama and uncertainty of the off-season, it can still be hard to believe that football is back. As we wrap up Week 3 of the preseason, the level of enthusiasm from fans to players rivals what one might expect from the first few weeks of the regular season.
It is always easy to take the preseason seriously. After all, each year the preseason represents the first real taste of football that fans have had since February. Hungry for the excitement of the game, we latch on to the preseason as an excuse to live for football once again.
As we cheer on our favorite teams, we forget that these games are just a preview to the real thing. They’re exhibition games, meant to serve as scrimmages to get veterans back into football shape and as tryouts for those jockeying for a spot on the 53-man roster. By the time we get to the fourth quarter, we’re watching a third-string offense face off against a third-string defense.
Regardless, it’s exciting to see a team go 3-1 or 4-0 in the preseason. Surely, it’s a sign of good things to come for the regular season when a team fires on all cylinders for the preseason, right?
In the past 10 years, only around 20 percent of teams who had a 3-1 or better record in the preseason have met or exceeded that win percentage in the regular season. The 2008 Detroit Lions who went 0-16 in the regular season won every one of their preseason games. The San Diego Chargers dominated the preseason in 2000 with a 4-0 record, but won only a single game in the regular season. In 2006, the Oakland Raiders went 4-1 in the preseason, only to disappoint fans with a 2-14 regular season.
On the other hand, the 2010 New England Patriots earned a healthy 3-1 record in the preseason and proceeded to blow the league away with a 14-2 record in the regular season. The 2002 Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers each won 75 percent of their games in both the preseason and the regular season. Over the past 11 years, many teams with strong preseason performances have advanced to the playoffs.
Teams that do poorly in the preseason can be dominant in the regular season. Take, for example, the 2005 Indianapolis Colts who went 0-5 in the preseason and then stunned the league with a 14-2 regular season record, or the 2004 New England Patriots whose 1-3 preseason record paved the way for a 14-2 season.
There is no hidden trend within the preseason that might tip us off to the next Super Bowl winner, either. Since 2000, roughly half of the Super Bowl winners have had regular season records that were worse than their preseason records. The winners who outperformed their preseason records averaged just 2-3 in the preseason, a mediocre 40 percent win percentage. Last year's Super Bowl champion, the Green Bay Packers, had a playoff-caliber regular season after a disappointing 2-2 preseason.
As hard as it may be to remember in the heat of the moment, excelling in the preseason doesn’t guarantee dominance in the regular season. In fact, there is no significant mathematical correlation at all between preseason performance and regular season performance.
So sit back and enjoy the last week of the NFL’s annual opening act. Just don’t draw any premature conclusions about the fate of your favorite team based on their preseason performance.