Guide to Watching Preseason Football

My friend and associate Mr. David Amadeus Dorsey* posted the following message to his fellow Ravens fans regarding preseason football:

Three Things the Non-Nerdy Football Fan Should Know About Tonight’s Game

‎1) The Ravens are pretty much together so far as the first team is concerned, with the exception of some competition at tight end, safety, and offensive line. So unlike poor teams, which are struggling who to field on the first team, the Ravens are focusing primarily on depth. 37 of the players suiting up tonight will not have jobs in two weeks, and the Ravens want to find out which players will and won’t. Therefore you can expect some poor play, penalties, and perhaps even a loss. The objective of a preseason game is not necessarily to win, but to either figure out who you’re fielding on the first team (if you’re a bad team) or to figure out who’s best among your second and third team (if you’re a good team).

‎2) Joe Flacco is probably going to have a rough first quarter. He will be hurried (meaning he will be forced to throw the ball sooner than he wants to, sacked, he will throw poor passes, and he may even throw an interception. This is not because Joe Flacco is a bad quarterback, is going to have a bad season, or because of bad playcalling. It’s because the Ravens are trying something new on the offensive line, which is a luxury you get in the preseason. The Ravens are starting Bryan Mattison at center, moving Oniel Cousins to guard, and placing rookie Jah Reid at right tackle. This is not the team you’re going to see in the regular season, so let not your heart be troubled.

‎3) You’re going to see some very bland offensive playcalling. A pass to the tight end, a couple of runs up the middle, maybe a run to the side, and a punt. Over and over. This it not because Cam Cameron is a poor offensive coordinator or can’t effectively call offensive plays. It’s because the Ravens will be looking to evaluate the competition at tight end, will want to see how Ricky Williams will run, and aren’t concerned about getting first downs, moving the ball, scoring points or even winning. Because it’s the preseason, and winning isn’t the primary objective. The Ravens have a ton of new offensive play designs this year, and it would be very silly to show those off to the rest of the league in a game that doesn’t matter, in which winning isn’t the point.

This is all true, and I’d like to add two points:

  • For bad teams, they’re the opposite of what Dave said.  They’re going to look far better than they actually are for the exact opposite reason; they need to evaluate players in live-game situations because no positions are set in stone so they’re going to be playing all-out while the other team probably isn’t.
  • Furthermore, be mindful of mismatches.  If the first team offense is against the second team defense, or even the #3 QB against the #3 secondary, it’s going to make players look a lot better than they actually are.  Your third-string QB is not a future Pro Bowler because the corners he beat up on are going to be working in a supermarket next week.

Basically, don’t trust the box score. The stats, the score, they’re less than useless. It’s just going to make you either panic or celebrate unnecessarily.

But that’s not to say preseason football is useless for evaluating your team. There are some things you can look for that give hints about how well the season’s going to go. For example:

  • Most importantly: If there are no injuries it was a successful preseason.  You could lose four games 70-0 and if nobody gets hurt it was a huge success.
  • Fundamentals exist whether or not the playcalling is bland.  Does the quarterback’s footwork look solid?  Are the WRs getting off their blocks?  Is the running back making good cuts to hit the hole?  It’s subtle, and the camera crews usually don’t give you good angles to see it, but it’s a good tool for evaluation.
  • Speaking of the quarterback, watch his eyes.  Is he scanning the field from the snap as he’s dropping back or does he focus on dropping back then not look up for receivers until he’s set?  If the former he’s going to be good, if the latter he’s going to be Alex Smith.
  • Keep an eye on second-team players at WR, CB and the offensive and defensive lines.  Injuries are going to happen, odds are at least one or two of those guys is going to play, and they get a lot of one-on-one matchups with similarly-skilled players that can tell you how well they’re gonna do.  So, does the receiver shed blocks and get behind the corner?  Is the corner doing a good job of keeping the receiver in front of him?  Does the offensive lineman hold his blocks or is the defensive lineman shaking him and getting pressure?  The quality of those guys when they’re needed down the line is usually the difference between a good team and a contender.
  • Least important but still worth watching: How do the starters interact with each other and the coaches on the sideline in the second half?  Are they interested in the game?  Are they joking with both offensive and defensive players?  It’s a decent measure of chemistry for what that’s worth.

So there you have it.  It’s not a complete list but it’s a good primer, and it’s certainly a million times better than looking at stats.

* May not be his actual middle name.

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