This originally ran on Buffalo Wins. Thanks again to Joe for having me contribute.
There are a number of important events that fall between the Super Bowl and the opening week of the next NFL season. For the record, the Pro Bowl is not one of them.
The Draft, free agency, training camp and the day that final cuts are determined are all important dates that are worth paying attention to. There also happens to be these four pesky exhibition games that are blown totally out of proportion by a number of fans and anyone getting a paycheck from a certain production company in Bristol.
The NFL preseason is becoming an annual chore that is more about keeping starters healthy than shaping the roster. However, each year your team lays an egg and suddenly 3-13 is on the table. Truthfully, there is far too much attention paid to the outcome and overall performance during preseason, by everyone.
Just look at that steaming pile of a morning show that Skip Bayless works on. When they’re not extolling Tim Tebow as football’s savior, they’re drumming up any bit of crap they can get their hands on. Most recently Kirk Cousins big night against Chicago’s backups became fodder for a “quarterback controversy” in Washington because RGIII didn’t rack up big numbers behind his patchwork line and against Chicago’s ones. Keeping things closer to home, Buffalo has had two dismal showings in their pair of preseason outings thus far. However, this is due to the participation of over 30 players who will not be on the team come September 9. Now, the starters haven’t been lighting things up, but about 60% of the Bills play thus far has come with a group of players who will not be playing as a unit in three more weeks.
For example, Tyler Thigpen is likely out the door as a quarterback with the Bills. Shawne Merriman was just released and other depth players like Cris Hill, Nick Saenz and Derek Session might not even survive the first cut, let alone the final cut. Not to single out those specific players, but it illustrates the point.
All 32 teams will be releasing nearly the equivalent of the NFL’s active roster limit for regular season games. Add in the fact that 32 coaches aren’t rolling out their full game plan for these games and there is a beautiful recipe for mistake-riddled football and mediocre performances, particularly from the starters.
Take 2011 as an example. The Bills offense looked wretched through their four-game audition before blowing the doors off for the first eight weeks of the season. Prior to injuries taking their toll, the Bills offense turned a full 180 from the football they played in the preseason.
While that example isn’t always typical (see Edwards, Trent), the scaled back game plan, presence of back-ups, rookies and fringe players often has a drastic impact on the quality and outcome of these games.
Preseason football games to indeed serve a purpose, however. They’re ideal evaluating tools for depth players on an individual basis. These games, while utterly pointless in terms of the final score, provide coaches – and fans if they’re watching closely – the opportunity to see what kind of players they’re dealing with heading into the season.
For the Bills, Cordy Glenn and Stephon Gilmore are under the microscope in terms of a starting position while additional position battles for backup quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker and the defensive line roll on. Then there is the usual depth battles for the spots that round out the roster heading into week one.
For example, Robert Eddins and Kyle Moore will need strong outings over the next two preseason games to attempt to fill Shawne Merriman’s vacated spot. In addition, Derek Hagan, Ruvell Martin, Naaman Roosevelt and Marcus Easley are all jockeying to fit into either the final two or the lone remaining roster spot reserved for receivers.
What all of that says is that there is not an entire unit that needs to be worried about, simply individual pieces. Players like Scott McKillop, Delano Howell and T.J. Graham have all had solid individual performances despite the team not responding with wins. Point being that this is all on an individual level.
Now the Bills know that McKilliop is probably a perfect candidate to serve as Kelvin Sheppard’s backup and that T.J. Graham will be capable of producing for them immediately. Regardless of the recent outcome of these games, the team will be able to identify the pieces that will ultimately make them effective once the regular season begins.
Even if the third preseason game is a dud, it doesn’t mean much of anything. I don’t care that it is the game that the starters get a ton of playing time simply because I know Chan Gailey isn’t going to open up his playbook until the regular season is up and running. If the first team offense can’t run the ball after three weeks of the regular season, then there will be cause for concern. Until then, sit back, relax and try to pick out a few players who you see as sleepers to make to team or even serve as key contributors down the line.
Don’t forget, David Nelson became a primary receiving option for this team during the summer when the starting offense didn’t put the ball in the end zone during preseason play.