NFL Preseason: How To Watch (Mostly) Meaningless Games Properly

Videos by OutKick

I was in Jake’s, a fine bar in the Willow Glen neighborhood of San Jose, during the NFL preseason game between Las Vegas and Minnesota. It was a good time to get something to eat, do some writing and check out the Raiders. 

What I didn’t expect was the energy. Raiders fans were seriously geeked up to see the Silver-and-Black play a meaningless game. Then again, when your team hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2002 season, you tend to search for meaning every chance you get. 

NFL preseason fans
Preseason games do not scare Raiders fans. (Getty Images)

I’ve probably been subjected to 100 exhibition games over the past 30 years. At three hours each, that’s 300 hours. The only thing I can say about those 300 hours is that I’m that much closer to death from watching them. 

Still, I try to take in as much as I can stomach and constantly think to myself: “OK, what can I get out of this moment. What’s really going on?” My other thought is, “What’s the point of settling for field goals in the preseason when you can actually practice some fourth-down plays?” But that’s another argument for another time. 

Aside from the obvious question about who is playing early in the game (coaches don’t waste time on players they don’t think have a chance to make the team), here are some thoughts on how to watch exhibition games. Because if you’re going to watch NFL preseason football, this is the week since the starters will play more than usual.

Viewer’s Guide To NFL Preseason  

  1. After every snap, count 3 … 2 … 1. If it’s a pass play and the ball is not thrown by the time you count down to 1, there’s a problem. At a time when the defense is probably playing either a soft zone coverage or man-to-man, there’s nothing really complicated here for the quarterback to read. He should be getting rid of the ball quickly and in rhythm. He should also be progressing quickly through his reads. Watch Patrick Mahomes and you’ll see what I mean. Likewise, if you watched Chicago quarterback Justin Fields last year and then this year, you see a big difference at the speed he reads the defense and even how he processes. Will he become fast enough? Only regular season action can answer that. 
  1. Don’t get geeked up about rushing yards by your quarterback, especially the backup. At a time when the defenders are playing a lot of man-to-man coverage – and, therefore, have their backs turned to the quarterback – that 35-yard scramble by the backup who you thought was a pocket passer will not translate to anything meaningful in the regular season. In fact, the decision by him to run is more of an indictment of his inability to find an open receiver against man coverage. 
  1. Is your rookie running back in the right place against the blitz? There’s not a lot of blitzing in the preseason, except in one particular situation. When the offense unveils its new running back in an obvious passing situation, the defense is probably going to blitz at least one time. In fact, unbeknownst to you, the two coaches probably got together before the game and went over some situations. One of them was your head coach telling his opponent to test the rookie running back on blitz protection or where to be on a screen pass. A great example this year was Kansas City rookie running back Isiah Pacheco going out for a screen pass against a blitz by Chicago and not getting to the right spot before Chad Henne threw the ball to the ground. 
  1. Do your receivers know where to be? If the quarterback badly overthrows a pass and you wonder, ‘What was he thinking?’ the more likely answer is that his receiver didn’t know where to be. A great example of this came last year in a route that Tim Tebow ran as a tight end. Simply put, Tebow was lost. That’s not his fault, he should never have been put in that position by Urban Meyer. But that’s another story that no longer matters. 

More NFL Coverage On OutKick

  1. Blowouts are meaningful, especially this week in the NFL preseason. A lot was made this week about Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett apologizing for Denver’s horrible performance against Buffalo. While Denver was playing backups against the Bills first team, there should always be effort. I distinctly remember in 1995 when I covered a Dolphins preseason game at Atlanta. Miami, which had gone on a free-agent frenzy in the offseason to build a Super Bowl contender, got blown out. I didn’t think much of it. Later in the season, effort and focus became a huge issue as the Dolphins eventually collapsed in the playoffs. Respected special teams coach Mike Westhoff told me afterward that he saw the problems start in the Atlanta preseason game. Buffalo is a Super Bowl favorite, but Denver is supposed to be a contender. 
  1. How fast do the young defensive players react? This is along the lines of the young running back getting tested in a passing situation. If you’re willing to take your eyes off the ball for a second and just watch the defensive players as they react at the snap, look for the guys who move quickly and fluidly. Among the few memories I have of the preseason was an unheralded fifth-round linebacker named Zach Thomas in 1996 looking like a man among children because he moved so quickly. 

Written by Jason Cole

Jason Cole has covered or written about pro football since 1992. He is one of 49 selectors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and has served as a selector since 2013. Cole has worked for publications such as Bleacher Report, Yahoo! Sports, The Miami Herald, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and started his career with the Peninsula Times-Tribune in Palo Alto. Cole’s five-year investigation of Reggie Bush and the University of Southern California resulted in Bush becoming the only player to ever relinquish his Heisman Trophy and USC losing its 2004 national championship.

Leave a Reply