Does the NFL Preseason Really Have Any Predictive Value?

Stephen White@sgw94Featured ColumnistAugust 24, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 05: (L-R) Osi Umenyiora #72 and Devin Thomas #15 of the New York Giants celebrate with the Vince Lombardi trophy after the Giants won 21-17 against the New England Patriots during Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 5, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Preseason football in the NFL is very important. Every year, teams experience turnover both on the roster and sometimes with the coaching staff and front office. For that reason, every year is unique and no one can solely rest on what they did the seasons before.

Too much can be made of whether teams actually win preseason games, however. Many fans and media members alike concentrate too much on teams' records and the stat sheets rather than how the teams look on the field.

The problem with this approach is that so much of the success or failure of a team in a preseason game is predicated on the play of guys who may not even be on the roster, let alone getting playing time, once the regular season rolls around. That can work both ways: Sometimes starters shine where backups wouldn't, and sometimes the opposite is true.

I took a look back at the teams who made the AFC and NFC Championship games the past five seasons. Only six out of those 20 teams had a winning record during the preseason. Of those six, only two went on to win the Super Bowl.

Yet 14 teams that only broke even or worse all also made it within one game of the Super Bowl. That includes a 2010 Chicago Bears squad that didn't win a game during the preseason.

I would also note that even though much emphasis is placed on the third preseason game because teams' starters tend to play well into the third quarter, these same teams went 10-10 in those games.

Projecting regular-season success based on winning the third preseason game, it turns out,Β is about as accurate as flipping a coin.

USA Today writer Dan Vergano recently reported on a study published in the Journal of Sports Economics that came to the conclusion that

Although preseason games may provide opportunities for players new to the NFL to experience game-time experience and offer the coaching staff more information on the performance capabilities of new players, winning preseason games does not directly translate into better overall team performance in the regular season.

You have to remember that these preseason games take on different significance for different teams. Some head coaches, recognizing they have a veteran team, are more concerned with getting to the regular season with their starters healthy than actually winning the game.

Other head coaches with younger teams are looking for the players they can count on and may not be as cautious with their key players. For those head coaches, especially new hires, many times they want their teams to experience winning as much as possible so that it becomes a habit to their players.

The players themselves may look at the games differently as well. A seasoned veteran may not take it quite as seriously as a rookie free agent just trying to make the squad. For those long shots to make the team, there may not be a tomorrow in the NFL, so they have to treat every game as a privilege.

Then there are the secretive coaches who hold back some of their "good stuff" until the regular season, lest other teams see it on film and start preparing for it.Β 

What preseason games are good for is predicting individual performance. You can see which starters look sharp and which ones look like they might struggle. You get to see which backups are ready to contribute if necessary and also the ones that would be a liability. And you can see those guys who are trying to hang on but just don't have it anymore.

Winning preseason games is never a bad thing, but it probably won't tell you much about where those teams are going. Watching the games for how individual players perform is a much better way of trying to make that determination.


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