Sunday, August 17, 2008

NFL Pre-Season: Wake Me When It's Over

I was going to start off this column by presenting you with a list. It was going to contain those things in life that are less compelling than NFL exhibition games played in August. Then, I was going to crank out my 900 or so words from there.

Well, it’s been about 15 minutes and I haven’t come up with anything yet.

I tried, believe me. I considered such things as five-day forecasts, anything to do with the ladies on “The View”, and watching paint dry. Then I thought, maybe tofu, any furniture sale, or a piece of mail addressed to Resident. Perhaps, my mind went on, Geraldo Rivera, corn flakes without banana on top, or any song by Lionel Ritchie.


Exhibition football, or pre-season football – take your pick – is the most rotten, unprovoking, irrelevant, and wretched creation ever foistered on the general public. And that’s saying something, when you’re talking about a society that has produced liver and onions. And Ann Coulter.

That the National Football League is allowed to charge full price for these pretend games is akin to placing Splenda in the nation’s sugar bags and calling it tit for tat.

Here’s a typical pre-season game situation: each team plays its starters for maybe two series each, in the first quarter. And with a dumb-downed playbook. And with absolutely no inclination by either team to fully reveal its arsenal of weapons or plays because, it’s well, the FREAKING EXHIBITION SEASON.

Then, the second stringers come in, and after halftime, after you’ve paid your $8 for a beer (no such things as “exhibition prices”, natch) and $7 for nachos, you’re treated to football played by guys who would only play in a regular season game if there was a nuclear holocaust and they somehow survived, like cockroaches.

Watching on TV might be cheaper, but no less harmful to your mental well-being. Even the regular network analysts hardly show up; the TV teams are mostly minor league, too. The Lions have experimented with several of their former players to assist in the broadcast booth for the four exhibitions played every August, and the results have been as even as a metro Detroit road. This year it’s Desmond Howard, who says things like “Way to go, Deeetroit Lions!” Or at least he did, when I suffered a brain fart and tuned in to the game against the New York Giants last week. Less than sixty seconds later, I came to my senses and switched channels. Maybe even to Geraldo Rivera; not sure.

It’s amazing, really, that you could take the New England Patriots and the Giants, put them in a Super Bowl, and have a game for the ages – and then pit them against each other six months later on a Thursday night in August and have all the allure of your grandmother in a bikini (unless your grandmother happens to be Christie Brinkley, I apologize for the image I just conjured in your mind).

But that’s what you get when exhibition football happens. I was around, but have conveniently blocked from my memory the days when teams actually played six of these monstrosities instead of the current four. In 1978, when the regular season schedule expanded to 16 games from 14, two of the exhibitions were scrapped to keep the total allotment to 20 games. I say we split the atom again, and reduce the pre-season to two games per team, and increase the regular season to 18 games. My opinion.

The NFL Network, bless their desperate-for-programming hearts, have been showing pre-season games – which is nothing more than pirating the local TV feed and presenting it for the nation’s consumption, complete with the local graphics, trivia questions, and deer-in-the-headlights sideline reporters who would be outclassed by the latest freshman class at the Specs Howard Institute.

Again, in a moment of weakness, my remote thumb stopped on a pre-season game between the St. Louis Rams and the Tennessee Titans last week. There were under two minutes to play, the game well in hand for the Titans, who held the ball deep in St. Louis territory. But instead of running a play, the Titans decided to simply snap the ball and take a knee three times in a row, to run out the clock.

“Good move,” one of the minor league announcers said with sincerity and total seriousness. “Don’t want to get anyone hurt here.”

Who are you going to hurt? A fourth-string lineman? Anyone playing in the waning moments of a blowout pre-season game isn’t anyone you’re going to miss – no offense to those players or their immediate families. Besides, that’s the other cockamamie thing about pre-season football. The mantra, right out of the gate, is “don’t get anyone hurt.” But this is football, people. Playing pro football games with the pie-in-the-sky goal of not getting anyone hurt is like taking a shower and hoping not to get wet. Not gonna happen. Every year, some poor team has to deal with an injury suffered by one of their key players, or more, that occurred in one of these totally meaningless matches.

The Lions had their 1979 season torpedoed before it began, thanks to a knee injury suffered by QB Gary Danielson in the final exhibition game, knocking him out for the season. The Lions finished 2-14 with a rookie quarterback leading them. More recently, RB James Stewart had his career ended by an ill-timed shoulder injury, incurred when he wasn’t even supposed to be on the field, yet was left in the game by an admittedly wrong head coach Steve Mariucci in the final pre-season game of 2003. Thanks, Mooch.

Coaches will tell you that they need the games to evaluate their players and make choices as to who makes the team and who doesn’t. Fair enough. Just do it in two games, not four. Any coach worth his salt should be able to make up his mind after several weeks of training camp and 120 minutes of live game action.

And if they can’t, then sentence them to watch these games on television. In their entirety. With the mute button disabled.

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