When we get to the NFL Scouting Combine each year, coaches, general managers, personnel people, media and fans all chant the same mantra: Don’t fall in love with guys in shorts. Then we collectively go out and fall in love with guys in shorts and lose some perspective on players’ actual ability.
At the beginning of each preseason, coaches, GMs, personnel people, media and fans all chant the same mantra: Don’t read too much into preseason games. Then we all go out and either make our Super Bowl reservations or burn our season tickets based on the outcome of a preseason game.
The more things change, the more things stay the same. Even though everyone has commented endlessly on the effects of the lockout and the short period of time teams have had to prepare for the first round of preseason games, I am seeing and hearing people all over the NFL overreact.
My experiences last week when I did the Tampa Bay-Kansas City preseason game for FOX are a case in point. I spent three days in the KC area getting ready and meeting with the Chiefs and Buccaneers when they came into town. While kicking around town, I ran into a bunch of fans — and KC fans are among the best — who were fired up about their team. They should be.
Head coach Todd Haley and GM Scott Pioli have done a great job turning the franchise around. Getting to the playoffs at 10-6 last season and establishing their now-Pro Bowl QB Matt Cassel was huge. In the offseason, they drafted intelligently. The Chiefs added a big athletic receiver, Jonathan Baldwin; depth at center, Rodney Hudson; and an outside pass rush presence opposite Tamba Hali, Justin Houston from Georgia.
They also picked up veteran wide receiver Steve Breaston and an outstanding lead back in Le’Ron McClain. They also made a huge acquisition at nose guard in Kelly Gregg to school their young players, such as Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson. All in all, a good offseason.
I had to stay in KC after the game and spent the morning at a Starbucks in the Plaza area, while waiting to get a cab to the airport. Visiting and listening to the Chiefs fans that morning, you would have thought the Chiefs’ 25-0 loss to the Bucs had been the culmination of a 4-12 season with no prospects for getting better.
The contrasting approach that Tampa Bay, and its head coach, Raheem Morris, and Kansas City took to the game is an excellent microcosm of the differing ways teams have approached this unique preseason.
Sitting with Haley, I could see his assistant coaches and players were singularly focused on physically getting ready for the season. Haley said he wasn’t sure his team was physically ready for a game, and he was going to be very conservative with regards to the playing time of his veteran and rookies. This is not a bad approach. You not only want to avoid getting your veterans hurt, but if you get a large number of rookies hurt, who weren’t going to make the team, anyway, you may have to eat their salaries for the year and dramatically affect your cap situation.
An equal concern was the amount of the system the players had been able to absorb in less than 10 days of practice. Haley told his staff, “I want to do less, fast.” He said he didn’t want to mistake a players’ poor play for lack of ability, when in fact they were simply lost and confused.
Morris, on the other hand, had a totally different approach. His young, but now experienced team hit the ground running. He decided to play his veterans through the first quarter, opting to get them 20-25 plays in the first game. He even took that approach with starting rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster. Said Morris: “This kid needs to grow up fast, and this is the only way I know how to achieve that.” This approach fits the team and his circumstances.
In short, Haley said the Chiefs would approach the game like another practice, while Morris and the Bucs would approach it like a game. They both got what they wanted. The Bucs dominated the Chiefs physically and emotionally, playing with confidence and purpose. The Chiefs flopped around like a bad practice, which will give Haley plenty of tape to teach from.
Oddly enough, I agree with both approaches. They seem to be the contrasting views teams are taking, and we’ll see which prevails once the regular season starts. It could be that both are right, for their respective teams. As is usually the case, the results of the preseason will mean absolutely nothing.
On a side note, I must say, I saw nothing in my game with the Chiefs and Bucs, and the subsequent games I saw on TV, to indicate the lockout has had an appreciable effect on the product on the field. These looked like normal first games in the preseason with the normal amount of mistakes and miscues. No more, no less. That bodes well for the season opener, where my bet is we’ll find it hard to differentiate the difference in the quality of play in the first week of the regular season from any other opening week in years past.
I found an interesting aside, which does exemplify the challenge for teams in this shortened offseason/training camp. In visiting with Cassel, we were talking about his rookie center, the second-round choice Hudson. Starter and longtime veteran Casey Wiegmann, wasn’t going to play, and Hudson was getting the nod. Cassel was very complimentary of the rookie’s physicality and mental approach. But then he added: “I really like the mentality Rodney has shown so far. What was his last name again?"
This is typical of every team in the league that is still struggling to develop those relationships that normally begin during the four and five months leading up to training camp. Although, I must say, if I were going to begin my evening with my hand under the butt of someone, I think I might learn that person’s last name.