The pre-season of the NFL won a large victory yesterday. The month-long dog-and-pony show that fans, players and coaches alike screamed to have abolished stepped up and punched them right in the throat. Clearly there is only so much it was willing to take and it should be commended for teaching the league a lesson: use me wisely, or else...
Week 1 of the NFL showed us a few interesting things about older, more experienced teams which championed the insignificance of the pre-season. Several notable clubs who openly mocked the significance of the preseason correspondingly got stood up when they arrived to the dance. Peyton and the Colts were terrible at home. The Patriots scraped by, while the Chargers manufactured defeat from certain victory. The Browns are due slightly different criticism, but are included for reasons outlined below.
Manning's bum-knee kept him out of the pre-season and the Colts offense what victimized resultantly. They looked although the plays were brand new to them and had a porous line that left the pre-seasonless Peyton drifting the in back field. Tony Dungy runs the pre-season like a corporate team-building retreat instead of a boot camp and they were on the wrong end of a 13-29 thumping from a Bears team who was unquestionably better prepared to win.
The team that still hasn't lost a regular season game since 2006, the New England Patriots also unimpressively squeaked by. Notwithstanding the devastation that followed the season-ending injury to Tom Brady, I can't be the only one who felt they should still have put the hammer down a little more against a K.C. squad who also lost their starting quarterback? The Pats had four 3-and-outs and managed to look ordinary, admittedly due to a combination of pre-season malaise and Brady-related shock.
How about the Chargers and Browns? Not really fair to burn the Chargers for losing to a buzzer-beating TD, but they they deserved to lose after surrendering 388-yards (including 68y with 2:27 remaining) and converting but 4-of-12 third downs. They were sound on the offensive side of the ball with Rivers and LT managing performances akin to the AFC championship standards, which I acknowledge begrudgingly.
The over-hyped Browns were in tough against the Dallas Cowboys, but did nothing to make this game competitive. Derek Anderson was brutal, fumbling twice while completing less than half of his throws (QB rating: 74). Early drops and subsequent disappearance of Braylon Edwards set the stage for their unimpressive 10pt performance. With a few more repetitions under their belt Edwards might have run away with that sure-TD he dropped and changed the course of the game.
The reason for their respective struggles is naturally open for debate. If you're thinking like me, then you feel these teams were overwhelmed mentally and insufficiently prepared physically. We hear endlessly about their being no substitution for the speed and intensity of a regular season game, a soundbite that seems to stress the importance of that experience in games that don't matter. So when Manning, LT and Rivers, Brady, Edwards and half of their respective teammates watch -- rather than play -- the tune-up games designed to get them into the proper rhythm, is it any surprise they bonk out of the gate?
Consider the contrast between younger teams who worked their asses off and turned themselves into winners on week one. Rather than a collection of individuals grinding in an unfamiliar groove and at varying speeds, clubs like Atlanta, Buffalo, Chicago and Baltimore hit the ground running -- most importantly, as a group travelling at the same speed in the same lane. Synchronously and as a unit these 4 teams blasted out of the gate and surprised the entire league.
Atlanta was led by Matt Ryan and Mike Turner -- both new to the organization and with something to prove. These kinds of expectations are exactly that which ensures meticulous planning and familiarization with the on-field tenancies of one another. Likewise, after re-claiming the starting role for this season, Trent Edwards and the Bills looked polished. Defense and special teams were outstanding (two special teams touchdowns vs. Seattle) and the results speak for themselves. Baltimore, another team with low-expectations and a young quarterback proved in much the same way the Bills did that using the pre-season as a spring board for excellence rather than a walk-thru or warm-up pays off immeasurably.
In a week featuring the above contrasts to approach-and-outcome the value of the pre-season has never been more controversial. The err of veteran teams who piously demanded the abolishment of the pre-season is in their complacency. They sacrifice fluency and rhythm for the good of their health, which in a game as violent and brutal as the NFL, is a trade-off that needs to be delicately balanced. Let these examples serve as a reminder that in the game of inches, nothing can be overlooked regardless of it's perceived insignificance.