By Martin Rogers
Welcome to guesswork season in the National Football League, the window of time in this upturned year when we know we want pro football to begin again, but don’t have any real idea of what to expect when it does.
The slate of exhibition games that were scrapped as the NFL came to terms with the necessary modifications caused by COVID-19 have been neither greatly missed nor sadly lamented. However, they did provide at least one valuable purpose to the expectant fan.
Preseason was rarely an accurate predictor of how the campaign would play out, yet it often gave a telling peek as to how things were shaping up for the teams thought to be serious contenders and the players who made them tick.
Without the four glimpses that are customary, we are left to wonder about it all, while parsing the various bits of regional information that come in from around the country. Under normal circumstances, the appearances of Tom Brady in exhibition games for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be used as the primary method for "seeing how he looks." Now, reported glimpses of Brady’s arm strength and mood from the Bucs’ training camp must suffice.
In New England, the quarterback competition to replace Brady would have revolved heavily around the preseason slate, with Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham (before his injury) and Brian Hoyer set to duke it out. Bill Belichick must now figure it out behind closed doors, which is probably how he likes it anyway, but it should be noted that Stidham rose heavily in the coach’s favor last season precisely by playing well during the August schedule.
There are positional situations all over the field to be figured out, but the most interesting are at the most important spot. Tua Tagovailoa would have had a far greater shot at being a Week 1 starter had he been able to prove his durability and worth during preseason action rather than just on the training field. As things stand, Ryan Fitzpatrick is considered likely to get the nod to begin under center for the Miami Dolphins.
While preseason has always been part of the waiting game for supporters, FOX NFL analyst and former New York Jets head coach Eric Mangini insisted its value to teams should not be underestimated.
"Each one of those games serves a function," Mangini said on FS1’s The Herd. "Especially with the offseason we've had, if you put a new head coach and new coordinators into a situation where they are expected to make good decisions with shortened experiences and limited exposure, it is hard. They are already behind the eight ball."
There was a time, believe it or not, when the preamble was nearly half as long as the main event, with six initial games followed by a 14-game regular campaign from 1970 to 1977. The Miami Dolphins’ perfect season in 1972 actually featured three defeats … in preseason.
Six games was way too long and it seems that four will soon be tightened to three, assuming the owners activate a provision in the collective bargaining agreement to extend the regular season to 17 games.
Fans won’t be too saddened because exhibition games are a definitive return to football each year, but no one is pretending that they mean anything much, nor that they are close to being equivalent to the real thing.
One of the greatest appealing factors that the NFL has is that, due to a season far shorter than most major sports, every game matters so much that they are played with incessant and unforgiving intensity.
However, for many players, preseason was when they were able to come out and show what they could do, especially for those who had previously flown under the radar.
"Preseason games were huge," Brad Seely, a now-retired NFL assistant coach for eight different teams, told ESPN.com. "Especially as the years went on, the contact phase of it became so limited in practice. You just don't want to get anybody hurt. There were times where other than practicing against another team, those opportunities and then the game were the only time you got to see guys do things."
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen has admitted there would be "no story for me" if this was the year he came into the league as an unheralded undrafted free agent. For players like him, fortune is against them this time around.
If it feels like this whole season is a bit of a dice roll, you may be onto something. A greater array of factors and an altered preparation almost certainly will lead to greater unpredictability.
The FOX Bet odds for the campaign place the Kansas City Chiefs as Super Bowl favorites at +600, with the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers just behind them. In truth, it would take a brave bettor to plunk down a sizable sum on a team right now. But remember that the oddsmakers are operating from limited information too, meaning this could be where the true profiteers shine.
Perhaps the same thing goes for the most enterprising and industrious of coaches and coordinators. Those who can glean the most from limited information, who can read how a player will handle the heat of competition despite not having seen him do it first hand recently, may have a telling edge.
It is a time when X-factors and intangibles come into play, when yes, sometimes a bit of fortunate guesswork can have a serious impact on the future of a franchise.
It’s not long before we see who made the right calls as this, the empty preseason, is almost done.