Here’s why NFL preseason wins matter (but going undefeated could spell doom)

One of the most peculiar relationships in the National Football League features an unstoppable army of fans on one side, and the entire concept of preseason on the other.

Diehards really can’t make up their minds. Ask them at the start of August, and they can’t wait for preseason to begin. Bring up the topic again a couple of weeks into exhibition season? They can’t wait for it to end.

The run of games before the real games begin is an emotional trap for overeager optimists, who might foolishly allow their minds to trick them into believing wins at this time of year are a portent of better things to come.

Because preseason games don’t mean anything, right?

Right. And wrong. And sometimes, neither right nor wrong.

Looking into preseason results and aiming to determine if they proffer any carry-on benefit is a frustrating route to madness, which is part of what makes it fun to try. Any correlation between August excellence and winter wins should, on the surface, be immediately eliminated by the twin cases of the two worst teams in NFL history – the 2008 Detroit Lions and the 2017 Cleveland Browns.

Two campaigns so forgettable that they’re actually unforgettable, with a pair of dire 0-16 records, were somehow both preceded by perfect preseasons. That’s right, those turgid Lions and the embarrassing Browns each went 4-0 before things took a spectacular turn for the worse.

“Perfection,” screamed the Detroit Free Press’ banner headline after the final preseason win. A few months later, and it was perfect futility.

On the flip side, however, there is some statistical evidence to suggest that being at least passably good in the warm-ups is some kind of prerequisite for later glory. Of the last 11 Super Bowl champions, none of them produced a preseason record worse than 2-2, and no title team this millennium has gone winless in the preseason.

While that little tidbit reflects the quality of an organization perhaps more than it does the lineups they fielded in any of those individual games, the trend is clear. Teams that bumble their way through the NFL’s exhibition season don’t stand much of a chance come the postseason. And in that sense, preseason wins matter — as a barometer for the overall health of an NFL team as much as anything else.

The (preseason) best of those champions, the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, are one of 27 teams to run the table in preseason over the last 14 years. But that is where it gets a little strange. Of those preseason perfectionists, not much went right afterwards. The 27 flawless teams went on to a combined record of 198-235. Collectively, they performed 23 games worse than those same teams in the previous season.

That’s why, in NFL land, most people will tell you not to pay too much attention to preseason. Or, at the very least, don’t place too much stock in the results, no matter what you do.

“Don’t get too high or too low about the final record,” former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans executive Charley Casserly wrote on NFL.com. “This period is primarily used for training and player evaluations. Records aren’t important until September.”

The primary reasoning for this, of course, is that so many of the games are populated by lineups markedly different from what will actually be seen on the field during the regular season. It is a time for the hopeful to battle it out for the final few places on the roster, for second- and third-string quarterbacks to get reps, and for the main guys to rest up. So a true Super Bowl contender should expect mixed results in the win column in August while simultaneously possessing enough skill and cohesion to come away with a couple victories in the preseason laboratory.

Middling teams, meanwhile, can win amid turmoil — the Oakland Raiders are 2-0 despite all the noise going on with Antonio Brown and his helmet saga — especially if they’re focused more on the preseason victories and less on making sure their team is fit for a 16-game grind and a potential run to a Super Bowl. Hence, the “curse“ of 4-0.

In Atlanta (where the Falcons are 0-3, with two games remaining, as they appeared in the Hall of Fame Game), standout receiver Julio Jones is not planning to play a single down in preseason. FOX Sports’ Colin Cowherd believes that should be the blueprint.

“I totally agree (with Jones),” Cowherd said. “I don’t get the preseason. I love the NFL, but I can also say there are things I don’t like about it. I don’t like guys playing. Stars … they don’t need preseason games.”

Sure, we get it. It is just preseason. Whatever happens in these few weeks will soon be long forgotten once the serious business gets underway.

But football fans are a fickle bunch, especially those who have been starved of success. Trust me, there are a fair number of Raiders, and New York Giants, and Buffalo Bills, and yes, Browns fans right now who quite like that little stat about the Super Bowl champ always batting .500 or above in recent times — although, after reading this, they might be rooting for an experimental loss or two along the way.

So let them have their fun. Why not? After all, as the Lions and Browns have shown in the past, there is no guarantee it will last.