The Washington Redskins had an uncertain running back situation in the summer of 1975 because Larry Brown was accomplished and beloved but was also wearing down from years of heavy use in a more violent game tolerant of headshots and other strategies unthinkable and even illegal today.
So the Redskins were hoping for help in the backfield and, amazingly, a fifth-round pick out of UNLV named Mike Thomas started turning heads in practice. Thomas was so impressive head coach George Allen sounded optimistic he’d found something special although he really wasn’t sure.
Then the Redskins played in the Hall of Fame Game against the Cincinnati Bengals and in a 17-9 victory, Thomas simply went off.
Four yards here.
Five yards there.
Through a hole quickly for seven more yards.
“It was my NFL coming out party,” Thomas, who passed away in 2019 at age 66, told me decades ago when I was fortunate enough to meet him. “I think after that game I convinced people they had something.
“And the rest is history.”
Thomas started 10 of 14 games for the Redskins his rookie season despite the fact Allen hated playing rookies. He went to the Pro Bowl one season later.
So don’t tell Mike Thomas preseason games don’t matter.
Two decades later, in the summer of 1996, the Miami Dolphins were making the gargantuan leap from Don Shula to Jimmy Johnson.
And Johnson, who ran the draft in Miami, selected a little known linebacker from Texas Tech named Zach Thomas in the fifth round. And he signed a lesser known linebacker from Rice named Larry Izzo as an undrafted free agent.
And in the first preseason game that year, Thomas, selected primarily for his special teams potential, got in on defense and suddenly turned into a tackling machine.
He filled holes. He ran to the ball. He made way too many tackles to even remember from that long-ago exhibition. The next day, after examining the tape, Johnson called veteran linebacker Jack Del Rio into his office and told him he was going to release him.
Because what he’d seen from the fifth-round pick in one preseason game convinced Johnson that Zach Thomas was going to be his starting middle linebacker for a long time.
In that same game Johnson noticed Izzo was a special teams maniac. The guy was unblockable on kickoffs and punts and promised to get better.
That week, in a team meeting, Johnson told all his players there were two ways to make the roster: By being a superstar like quarterback Dan Marino. And by hustling, never allowing oneself to be blocked and tackling on special teams — just like Larry Izzo.
And right there, on the spot and weeks before final cuts, Johnson announced to the team that Marino was the first player with a spot on Miami’s 53-man roster. And Izzo, the undrafted rookie linebacker from Rice, was the second.
“It was an great moment for me,” Izzo told me at the time. “Just great.”
So don’t tell Zach Thomas and Larry Izzo preseason games don’t matter.
Fast forward two more decades to 2016. That was the year Jared Goff went No. 1 overall in the draft to the Rams and Carson Wentz was drafted No. 2 by the Eagles.
But the star rookie quarterback that preseason was the fourth-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys named Dak Prescott.
Prescott was electric in his debut, completing 10 of 12 passes for 139 yards and finishing with a 154.5 rating as a surprise starter the first week of the preseason.
Prescott had battled second-year backup Jameill Showers in camp as both chased a roster spot and Showers, with a quicker release and slightly more experience, frankly looked better in practice. But in that opener Prescott left the idea of Showers winning the competition in the dust.
And the following week Prescott was better. He led the Cowboys to six scoring drives against the Dolphins, threw a 28-yard TD pass to Dez Bryant and and 58-yard bomb to Brice Butler. He had a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating.
Prescott won the backup job to Tony Romo because of those first two games and when Romo got injured days later, Prescott took ascended to the starting job and has held it since.
So don’t tell Dak Prescott preseason games don’t matter.
Look, I know the preseason seems unnecessary to many. I know it’s unfair to some season-ticket holders because they have to pay big-game prices for exhibition games. And I know many players that don uniforms in the preseason eventually never see a regular-season NFL field.
But for decades dating back as long as anyone can remember, preseason games have decided the fate of hundreds of players. It both lifted some to great heights and crushed the dreams of others.
And say what you will about that unforgiving process. But don’t say NFL preseason games don’t matter.
Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero