With the Pittsburgh Steelers’ preseason schedule to kick off tonight, I think it would be a fitting time for somewhat of an annual reminder about the value of preseason games, in light of what used to be routine threats from the league to reduce the number of preseason games played.
Of course, the NFL never actually wanted to reduce the number of games played. What they wanted to do was move preseason games to regular season games, which would draw them greater revenue. They would never agree to play only two preseason games without making them up elsewhere. It’s lost revenue.
But anyway, even though the league has seemingly finally understood that the Players Union is not in the distant future ever going to be agreeable to expanding the regular season—in spite of the fact that they still might backhandedly allude to the desire to do so—it still seems as though the preseason needs its justifications.
To be sure, for the casual viewer who does not know the names of 70 or 80 players on their favorite team’s 90-man roster, the bulk of the preseason is not going to hold much interest to them. At best, they might tune in when they hear that the star players are going to be in for a while, but even then the result is ultimately meaningless.
But for those who digest the sport on a much more regular basis—for the sort of people that would seek out our blog—the preseason means a lot more than that. Every team brings into training camp a unit that is trapped in a block of clay, and every practice, every preseason game chips away the debris that over the course of time reveals the sculpture within.
Like it or not, the primary function of this time of year is first and foremost to prepare your starters to win the Super Bowl. Even if they might not see a lot of action in preseason games if they are veterans, the process ultimately favors their development and education.
But so much more happens beneath the surface that has a great impact on the season as well. There are some jobs to be won, both for starting positions and for roles. There are roster spots, and opportunities to make it to the practice squad, to be decided upon.
If the preseason were two games fewer, it would make the decisions far more difficult to make. Frankly, there might simply not be enough opportunities within the game to allow the coaches to get an adequate look at most players beyond the starters, who would need to play a greater volume of the total in-game snaps available.
Beyond that, the preseason is a laboratory for experimentation, and the Steelers have certainly used it that way in recent years. From kicking the tires on outside-zone blocking to working on Cover-2 expansion and transitioning to a nickel-base defense, the preseason has served an important role is molding, or at least testing, different schemes before they are unveiled in a context that could cost them.
So I’m with Mike Tomlin on this one. I hope to never see the preseason reduced to fewer than four games.