We may be over seven weeks away from the start of the regular season, but football will be starting sooner than you may think. Training camps are just around the corner and the preseason kicks off with the Hall of Fame game on the 3rd of August. There has been talk of re-organising the preseason games, and there is dissatisfaction with the quality of the games. The players only get paid the same nominal fee as training camp, with their salary not kicking in until the regular season, but with the same injury risks. However, as a fan I am still excited so let me lay out a defence of preseason.
Firstly, it is football. Now this might seem like an obvious point, but the Super Bowl was played on February 2nd this year and there isn’t another snap until the August 3rd, that’s just over six months. As a football fan you are guaranteed twenty games a year (four preseason & sixteen regular season games) for your team, so if you discount preseason that’s a fifth of your games gone for the year.
There are also complaints about the quality of the football, and whilst it is true that the game schemes are pretty vanilla, and the starters are playing reduced minutes, if at all, that doesn’t mean that important things are not happening. I never put too much stock in the preseason record, but I do feel better about the upcoming season if the Bengals are 2-2 or better.
One of the major reasons you should pay attention to preseason is quite simple, with everybody focussing on the super stars of the game, heightened by the influence of fantasy football, people seem to forget what I think is one of the most important parts of a football team, depth. Thanks to the never ending pursuit of better training methods, we have bigger and faster players giving us increasingly violent collisions on the field. The injury rate in football is one hundred percent, and this means that your team’s roster will look very different at mid-season when compared to opening day, yet alone in week seventeen. By this point, that sixth linebacker you didn’t care about could well be starting or at least playing a crucial part on special teams, and if you’re lucky enough to have a franchise quarterback, you’d better hope he is still healthy. Depth matters.
During last year’s preseason I watched the Seattle Seahawks and what I was impressed with was the depth of their roster, they did not let up and bullied the Denver Broncos into a 40-10 loss, a precursor of their 43-8 Super Bowl win. Now I’m not saying that buried in this year’s schedule will be a predictor game for the Super Bowl, but I knew the Seahawks were a good team (that sounds obvious in hindsight but it is good to see things with your own eyes!) and you can get a real feel for how deep a team’s talent goes. The Bengals had an excellent preseason win over the Atlanta Falcons last year, that reflected their respective roster depths and whilst the Bengals went on to lose in the post season, the Falcons fell apart and ended 4-12, largely due to the way their roster had been constructed .
So how do you get the most out preseason? Well there is simply too much going on to follow the whole league so you break it down into a selection of things to focus on. Here’s my plan for preseason.
I intend to watch every snap of the Bengals. There has been a lot of coaching turmoil this year, with new coordinators on both sides of the ball. I shall be interested to see the beginnings of their new tenures, and in particular Hue Jackson’s offence with its renewed focus on the run, as I do feel that too much pressure was placed on Andy Dalton to win games and I think he will benefit from the support of a commitment to the run game.
The preseason is also your first chance to get a look at your team’s rookies. I shall be interested to see Russell Bodine, our new fourth round centre who looks as if he might be a starter. He had the best bench-press at the combine and I’m interested to see how he fits in the new offence. Darqueze Dennard is our first round corner and whilst I hope he isn’t starting too early (corner is one of those positions that take time to develop), I’m excited to see him play. Then there is Jeremy Hill, an old fashioned beast of a running back that leads me into the next section of my Bengals preseason plan.
As I said, depth matters, and so whilst you may think that without the starters who cares what happens in the game, but the answer to that is the players just trying to get on the roster. In fact not just the roster, but a roster. Preseason isn’t just about making the team, this is these player’s careers and for those at the bottom of the depth chart, having good plays on tape is important for catching on to any team. All teams scout the bottom of other team’s roster, looking for a player that might not make the opening day roster of the team they went to training camp with, but could really help at a position of need for them.
Each team will have more players at any position than they can keep, but not all roster battles are created equal. The daddy of them all is the infamous quarterback competition, which luckily I don’t have to worry about this year, but I’ll still be watching some other positions of interest and starting with the running backs.
Giovanni Bernard had a great rookie season last year and looks to be the starter this year. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a solid, experienced back who runs hard and by all accounts is a great person, but is also twenty-nine years old and so facing down the dreaded age of thirty that so few running backs seem to be able to play on past. Cedric Peerman is special teams standout, that played more of a role in the offense in 2012 than last year as the starters were mainly healthy. Finally, there is Rex Burkhead, picked last year and who looked good in preseason but didn’t make an impact in live games. That’s just the players from the final roster last year and as I have already mentioned, the Bengals just drafted a running back in the second round and have another undrafted rookie so something has to give.
Look at any team and you’ll find battles like this all over the roster. For the Bengals there is already talk about the effort and weight room exploits of an undrafted defensive tackle making the conversion to full back, who will be in competition with last year’s incumbent H-back (a mix of the traditional positions of fullback and tight end). Add in a scrum of receivers behind the top four (the Bengals usually have six on the roster), a selection of exciting linebackers with safety Taylor Mays thrown into the mix having played extensive time at nickel linebacker last year when Emmanuel Lamur was injured in the final preseason game, but also fighting with the other safeties, That’s just the start and there’s plenty to look at already, there will be players I’m unaware of that will grab the eye too.
But it’s not just the Bengals I’ll be looking at or this blog is going to get very lopsided. The first teams I’ll be looking at this preseason are the Dolphins and the Vikings.
I have a friend, who is a Dolphins fan and given the disaster that was the offensive line room last year, the turn around in players meaning that only one their starting centre was returning and he has already gone down with an injury requiring surgery, things will be very interesting for them on offense. Particularly as they really need to find out if there quarterback Ryan Tannehill is the real deal or not, which is going to be difficult as he is not the kind of quarterback that thrives behind a bad line.
I have more personal reasons for watching the Vikings, in that the architect of the Bengals recovery on defense Mike Zimmer has finally got a head coaching job and I just want it to go well.
Finally, I’ll be looking at the St Louis Rams and watching to see if the Michael Sam, the NFL’s first openly gay player, can make the roster.
There will be other headlines, things that point to how the season might go, injuries, and surprises that we haven’t even thought about yet.
So here’s the trick for getting into preseason, if you have a team, throw yourself into its roster, understand the strengths and weaknesses and where the competition is going to be. If you don’t have a team, why not? Pick one! Or just find the story lines that interest in you, look out for your favourite players; I’m sure I’ll be looking in on the 49ers and Justin Smith. The point is there is plenty to sink your teeth into.
Most importantly of all, football is coming, and that is something we can all be excited about.