The first time I attended a preseason NFL game was in 1987. The match-up featured my beloved Green Bay Packers against the Washington Redskins. It was held at Camp Randall stadium in Madison Wisconsin, home of the Wisconsin Badgers. Back then, the Packers used to play a token preseason game there.
I remember watching the green and gold run through the tunnel in front of 64,000+ fans. At the time, it was the highest attendance for any Packers home game—regular season included. My blood was pumping. My confidence was soaring. My bratwurst consumption was steady. And then the game kicked off.
Final score: Redskins 33, Packers 0.
Green Bay crossed the 50-yard line just once. The lone bright spot was a rookie named Don Majkowski. The quarterback, who two seasons later would earn the nickname “Majik,” flashed early signs of mobility and scrambling skills. But it wasn’t enough to soothe the anger of a pitiful performance. My distaste for preseason football had begun.
Today, I write fantasy football articles and my cynicism for the preseason is stronger than ever. Now, don’t get me wrong. Like most fantasy fanatics, the start of training camp and preseason games can’t arrive soon enough. Six months of watching the NBA and MLB is enough to make anyone crave the blood, sweat, and tears of football. However, after years of following the preseason from a fantasy perspective, I’ve trained myself not to get swept up in a flurry of hype.
Here are my six do’s and don’ts of preseason football.
1. DON’T grade performances in the preseason the same way you do in the regular season.
“It’s just the preseason.” Repeat those words. Repeat them early. Repeat them often.
Preseason statistics, box scores, and highlight reels are not to be trusted. In those four treacherous “exhibition” games, a variety of factors can make benchwarmers look like Pro Bowlers and studs look like duds. This is a time when first stringers compete opposite back-ups. It’s a time when coaches rest their stars and the players that do suit up and have already earned a roster spot often perform at 75% speed. They run a little slower, concentrate a little less, and don’t give quite as much effort.
Witness Ron Dayne. Last preseason, Dayne led the league with four touchdowns, including a 67-yard scamper. He ranked second in yardage with 263 and averaged a whopping 6.6 yards per carry. Dayne looked every bit like the Heisman Trophy winner who was drafted in the first round several seasons ago. It didn’t take long before owners and experts alike were moving Dayne up their rankings. At the same time, Tiki Barber was sliding down. Way down.
And then came the regular season.
Dayne flopped. He actually had more yards in the preseason than he did during the entire regular season. Barber soared, cruising to a career-high 1,518 rushing yards. The moral of the story: Don’t get caught up in a in the hype and chatter of preseason football. When you’re watching SportsCenter this August and you see LaMont Jordan ripping off 60+ yard runs, don’t quickly bump him a dozen spots higher on your rankings. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that it’s only the preseason.
||Preseason Rushing Stats
||Regular Season Rushing Stats
| Ron Dayne
| Tiki Barber
2. DO study the depth charts and pay attention to position battles.
Depth charts are a fantasy football owner’s best friend. They’re a good, clean, unbiased source of information. Study them. Monitor them. Sleep with them. By the end of the preseason, you should know who Tiki Barber’s backup is, and have an opinion if he’s capable of carrying the load should the diminutive Barber get hurt.
Most importantly, keep a watchful eye on key position battles. With Randy Moss in Oakland, the #2 wideout for the Minnesota Vikings could rack up 900+ yards and seven touchdowns without breaking a sweat. Visit the Vikings website at the beginning of training camp to see whether Mike Tice lists Marcus Robinson or rookie Troy Williamson as a starter on the depth chart. Then, see how the situation develops. Watch how each player performs during preseason games. Listen to Tice’s comments in post-game interviews. Read the local Minneapolis newspaper.
3. DON’T be afraid to drop injured players in your rankings or remove them from your cheatsheet entirely.
While preseason statistics should be taken with a grain of salt, preseason injuries should be examined under a microscope. What looks like a minor hamstring pull can linger deep into the regular season.
In most cases, it takes NFL players longer to recover from an injury than first estimated. Two recent examples are Michael Vick in 2003 and Michael Bennett in 2004. Vick broke his leg in the first preseason game of 2003. Early reports had him returning by Week 5. In reality, he didn’t play until Week 13. Last season, Michael Bennett sprained his knee. He was supposed to rest the joint for a few weeks and reclaim his starting spot. The reality was that he didn’t see any noteworthy action until nearly Thanksgiving and never truly recovered.
To be safe, I recommend adding at least 3–4 weeks onto the projected recovery time of any significant injury. The way I figure it, even if the player does heal on schedule, it will take at least a couple weeks to get back into game shape.
Finally, understand that an injury to one player can have repercussions for his teammates. If a top wide receiver gets hurt, the quarterback might experience a decline in numbers, while the #2 wideout could see a spike in production. Also, the injury doesn’t have to occur to a skilled position player to make a difference. Should a key offensive lineman break a leg, the quarterback might have less time to complete his passes. The running back might not see as much daylight.
4. DO make a note of trends.
Is Marshall Faulk getting goal line carries? Has Tiki Barber’s fumbling problem resurfaced? Does Tatum Bell block well enough for Jake Plummer? Is <insert rookie> looking good enough to make a starting push?
While statistics can be deceiving during the preseason, when the same thing happens over and over again, it can be the rock that starts the avalanche. Make a note of these trends. Don’t radically shift your rankings, but when draft day comes, keep them in the back of your mind. The knowledge can be invaluable when deciding between two players who you have ranked equally.
5. DO keep your eye out for future stars.
The most successful owners don’t treat fantasy football as a 4-5 month hobby. Instead, it’s a round-the-calendar event. Some would call it an obsession, but to be a consistent winner, you don’t necessarily even need to take it to this level. You simply need to build strong foundation of knowledge that you carry with you from year to year.
During the preseason, that means paying attention to young players who have the potential to evolve into future stars. For several years while he was a backup in Green Bay, Matt Hasselbeck finished as the highest ranked preseason quarterback. When he was finally traded and given an opportunity to start in Seattle, cunning fantasy football owners knew he had some skills and could eventually become an every-week fantasy starter. They used this knowledge to perhaps make Hasselbeck one of their late-round sleeper draft pick.
Last year, Falcons backup QB Matt Schaub exhibited similar success during the preseason, finishing with league-high 655 passing yards and a 99.7 QB rating. Will he be the next Hasselbeck? Time will tell, but the smart fantasy owner will keep Schaub in mind.
6. DON’T forget Rule #1.
It cannot be emphasized enough. Making brash decisions based on preseason performances can cost you on draft day. So this August, when you’re watching T.J. Duckett make a touchdown run that reminds you of Earl Campbell, take another sip of your cold beverage and tell yourself, “It’s just the preseason; it’s just the preseason.”