Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
13 Aug 2009
by Mike Tanier
Preseason football can bore the tonsure off a monk.
There are a lot of reasons to hate the NFL preseason. There are the bleating team employees masquerading as color commentators on local broadcasts, the anonymous rookies with duplicate jersey numbers, the scattershot any-day-but-Sunday weekly schedules that remind you that you're not watching real football. But the worst part of preseason is the games themselves: four weeks of vanilla game plans, brief cameos by stars, and interminable fourth quarters of punts and penalties.
As bad as they are, not all preseason games are created equal. The difference is watchability. Some games, while meaningless in the standings and played by career backups and future gym teachers, are just more watchable than others. The trick is to enjoy preseason games for what they do offer -- position battles, glimpses at promising youngsters -- instead of lamenting what they don't offer, like real team-on-team competition.
As a public service to fans who must maintain their sanity over the next month, I developed a Watchability Index for preseason games. Use it to decide whether you really want to turn off that Season 2 DVD of Mad Men for a few hours to watch Brock Berlin play football. After I go over the index, we'll run through this week's slate of nationally televised games to determine which exhibitions are worth watching.
To calculate the Watchability Index, start by adding the positives:
Quarterback Controversy: 5 points
Nothing adds meaning to a preseason game like a two- or three-man quarterback battle. There's usually a contender for a starting job still in the game in the third quarter, and first-team linemen and receivers often see extra playing time so each quarterback gets a fair shot. Quarterback A goes 6-of-10 for 73 yards against a first team defense, while Quarterback B goes 9-of-12 for 125 yards and a touchdown against the second string. Discuss and dissect.
Running Back Controversy: 4 points
These aren't as much fun, because the loser often earns a role as a change-up back instead of hiding his face behind a clipboard for five months. On the other hand, that rookie free agent who gains 97 yards in the fourth quarter might actually see real action in the regular season, as opposed to the fourth-quarter quarterback, whose agent is calling the UFL.
Favorite Team Playing: 4 points
Obviously a big draw, but watching the home team play a preseason game isn't as much fun as it sounds. First, you must deal with the Homer Television Network, the team-owned production company that turns each telecast into a four-hour season ticket infomercial. There's also the disgust/disappointment that comes from watching Shaheer McBride run around wearing Harold Carmichael's uniform number. Fourth-quarter shenanigans look far worse when your team is the one committing nine straight false starts.
Interesting Rookie: 3 points
Rookies play more than veterans in the preseason, so the first-round pick or the kid who rushed for 1,900 yards at Division III Chipawana State will get plenty of camera time. "Interesting" means different things to different people, so think "visibility" when applying these points: Knowshon Moreno is interesting; Andy Levitre isn't.
Third Preseason Game: 3 points
This is the "dress rehearsal," and the starters will play about a half. In a perfect universe, this would be the final preseason game.
Kicker Controversy: 2 points
You don't need to be a super-scout to figure out who is winning a kicker battle. First- or second-string doesn't matter: All 58-yard field goals are good, all missed extra points are bad. There's nothing quite like watching a rookie shank a 28-yarder, then slink to the sidelines: heartbreaking human drama at it's finest, surrounded by 59 minutes of bad football.
Receiver Controversy: 2 points
Receivers don't get as much camera time as quarterbacks or running backs, but watching teams like the Giants and Jaguars sort through a dozen competitors to find five receivers adds some interest to a game.
Famous Face, New Place: 2 points
Bills fans loved watching Terrell Owens catch a few short passes in the Hall of Fame Game, but the thrill of seeing the new free agent or trade acquisition in action fades fast when he spends the next three quarters trying to figure out what makes a good mixer for Gatorade.
Backup Quarterback Controversy: 1 point
Backups compete through the fourth quarter, offering a reason to stay tuned when the rest of the players on the field have three-digit or fractional uniform numbers. Also award one point if the late-game quarterback is a mad scrambler or weighs 290 pounds, two points if both.
Storyline Player: 1 point
Storyline players are guys like Reggie Bush or LenDale White: someone at the crossroads of his career, coming back from an injury, or doing something totally new like changing position or playing without performance-enhancing tequila for the first time. The storyline cuts both ways: You want to see how the surgically repaired knee holds up, but you'll wretch if the announcers mention it one more time.
Rookie Coach: 1 point
Rookie coaches don't unveil much about their schemes in preseason, but you can learn a few basic things (wow, empty backfield on third-and-inches) while getting used to seeing a whole new face on the sidelines.
Next, subtract the negatives:
First Preseason Game: Minus-1
The first preseason game has the most guys named John Tereshinski running around, and it's the most likely game to have a two-hour fourth quarter in which no one can line up properly or complete a pass. But it's the first football in months, making it a little easier to stomach.
Established Veteran Starting Quarterback: Minus-2
Peyton Manning or Drew Brees plays two series, then sits down and lets a boring veteran backup play the next two quarters. No one cares if the starter looks good or bad, and the backup also has job security, so there's not much to watch. Tom Brady is both an Established Starter and a Storyline Guy this year, but his starter-ness trumps his story-ness, leaving the Patriots at minus-1 this preseason. In the past, Matt Cassel's Mad Scrambler point would have canceled that out, but no more.
Fourth Preseason Game: Minus-3
All backups, with few roster spots on the line. Watchability is hurt by the Labor Day weekend (summer's over and you should be doing something fun) and the presence of meaningful college football games.
Shadow of Favre: Minus-1 (Packers), Minus-3 (Jets), Minus-5 (Vikings)
Brett Favre shouldn't be mentioned at all during a preseason telecast, but his name will probably come up dozens of times during Vikings and Jets games. Even the Packers, now a full year removed from their Favre controversy, are lightning rods for Favre prattle ("Remember last year, when Aaron Rodgers had to overcome all the pressure...") The more likely an announcer is to invoke that dreaded name, the less watchable the game.
Once you are done adding and subtracting, add the two teams together and apply the results to this rubric:
20-plus Points: Enjoyable
There's enough going on here to keep you genuinely interested until halftime and mildly amused thereafter.
15 to 19 Points: Watchable
The game will be diverting for a quarter or two. The fourth quarter makes great background noise for reading Football Outsiders Almanac.
10 to 14 Points: Tolerable
If it's on at the bar, you won't feel compelled to turn away.
Five to 9 Points: Barely Tolerable
This game is a little like hotel room porn: You'll turn it off after 11 minutes, feeling dirty and dissatisfied.
4 points or less: Threshold of Pain
You've exceeded recommended maximum dosage of Chris Crane.
All previews are enhanced with hastily-calculated Watchability Indices this week. Feel free to add four points if your favorite team is involved.
Cardinals at Steelers, Thursday on ESPN
Watchability Index: 6
In a Nutshell: It's the Super Bowl rematch! Seriously, most of this game's interest value comes from Cardinals rookie Beanie Wells, who might not play due to an ankle sprain. Even with Wells out, you can watch the Cardinals try to sort through their running backs and decide once and for all whether to jettison Matt Leinart. The Steelers provide almost no intrigue, though it will be interesting to see how the announcers handle the elephant in the Lake Tahoe hotel room.
Rams at Jets, Friday on NFLN
Watchability Index: 11
In a Nutshell: The lingering Favre aroma will dampen interest in Mark Sanchez vs. Kellen Clemens somewhat, but it's still an interesting battle. The Rams have lots of roster sifting to do, meaning that you'll be hearing names like C.J. Ah You and K.C. Asiodu, to say nothing of Chris Ogbonnaya. The Rams even have Samkon Gado to complete the Middle Earth Collector's Set; there's probably a great drinking game to be made from the names on their roster, but I don't want to play it.
Broncos at Niners, Friday on NFLN
Watchability Index: 22
In a Nutshell: This year's Broncos could be the most watchable preseason team in NFL history. Tune in for Kyle Orton vs. Chris Simms, stay for the Alex Smith vs. Shaun Hill undercard, and enjoy all of the zaniness as Josh McDaniels shuffles through running backs and Mike Singletary tries to keep a poker face while Dominique Zeigler runs Michael Crabtree's routes.
Falcons at Lions, Saturday on NFLN
Watchability Index: 13
In a Nutshell: Take away Matthew Stafford and rubbernecking as Jim Schwartz applies the jaws of life to the crumpled passenger side door of the Lions franchise, and you're left cheering for Tony Gonzalez waggle passes. This game starts at 4 p.m. Eastern Time, so it will be the second half before you sit down to the game. Stafford and Gonzo will be gone by then.
Bears at Bills, Saturday on NFLN
Watchability Index: 7
In a Nutshell: There are plenty of "storyline players" here: Jay Cutler, Terrell Owens, Orlando Pace, maybe Devin Hester and Marshawn Lynch if you really like storylines. We've already seen the Bills once, and they're pretty boring, though it's fun to watch their offensive line get blown up every third play.
Seahawks at Chargers, Saturday on NFLN
Watchability Index: 7
In a Nutshell: LaDainian Tomlinson and Shawne Merriman will try to get through about a dozen snaps of live action without getting hurt. T.J. Houshmandzadeh will catch a nine-yard slant from Matt Hasselbeck to the delight of thousands of Seahawks fans. Seneca Wallace will run around in circles. Midnight will strike on the East Coast, and even those of us who cover the game for a living will be snug in our beds.
Panthers at Giants, Monday on ESPN
Watchability Index: 2
In a Nutshell: The worst preseason games often pit two veteran, playoff-caliber teams against each other. Of course, networks love veteran, playoff-caliber teams, which is why they televise games like this, the David Carr-Matt Moore face-off you've always dreamed of. Steve Smith of the Panthers is hurt, so Steve Smith of the Giants will have the spotlight to himself as he tries to solidify his starting job on the Giants receiving corps. Notice that FOX, NBC, and CBS steered clear of Week 1 preseason games. Hey, those Flashpoint fans can be rowdy when you preempt a rerun without a good reason!
Culled from e-mail inboxes across America and beyond:
COMMISH: OK guys, it's time to pick a draft date. I am good Thursday the 20th, Friday the 21st, Thursday the 27th and Saturday the 29th. Are any of those dates good for you guys?
PLAYER 1: I can't make the 20th or 21st. Going antiquing with the wife.
PLAYER 2: Have to go to Wisconsin on business on the 27th.
PLAYER 3: Taking my kid to Howlin' Toddler Amusement Park the week of the 29th.
PLAYER 4: I am taking my fiancée to Antigua from the 21st through the 28th.
COMMISH: OK, one of you may have to get a proxy or draft by phone.
PLAYER 1: I can get my cousin Murray with the personal hygiene problem to draft for me.
PLAYER 2: I can give Player 4 a list for the first ten rounds, then draft by text message.
PLAYER 3: What about loading up a chat room, listing all the picks, and I can select using my iPhone?
PLAYER 4: Look, I hate playing when I can't draft my team. Can you work around my schedule?
COMMISH: Maybe. How about a Sunday morning?
PLAYER 1: Church.
PLAYER 2: That's my only gym time.
PLAYER 3: Kids' soccer practice.
PLAYER 4: Hangover.
COMMISH: I am not sure what to do.
PLAYER 2: Don't worry about me. I have my list all ready. In Round One, my order goes: Adrian Peterson, Brian Westbrook, Maurice Jones-Drew, Brandon Jacobs, Steven Jackson, Matt Forte, Peyton Manning, LaDainian Tomlinson, Clinton Portis, or Tom Brady. Then, in Round Two, if I got a running back, come back with Manning or Brady if they aren't taken, or Drew Brees or Jay Cutler, in that order, if they are. If I got a quarterback, take the top running back off the list above, or Frank Gore, Joseph Addai, or Thomas Jones.
PLAYER 4: Oh, I'm also going to the Outer Banks from August 30th through September 10th. Can you work around my schedule?
PLAYER 3: Why don't we just use an online league, and let the computer pick our rosters? Then, we can use the computers to select the lineups too. The winner of the league can get a virtual trophy.
PLAYER 1: Give Murray a chance. He's sorry about what he did to your floor three years ago, Commish. Turns out that brand of buffalo wing sauce causes him severe intestinal problems.
PLAYER 2: In Round 4, take the best available wide receiver if I already have two running backs and a quarterback. If I have three running backs or took Randy Moss then take Tony Romo or Donovan McNabb. If NOT (2 RBs AND 1 WR) XOR (1 RB AND 1 QB AND 1 [NOT (TE or Def)] then Laveranues Coles.
PLAYER 4: Can we not do nights? I don't like nights.
COMMISH: OK, this is insane. No more crazy schedules. No more online drafts, proxies, or Boolean algebra lists.
Most of us have been playing fantasy football for 15 years or longer. We know there will be drafts in late August. We know that the draft is the most fun part of a fantasy league: It's our only time to get together, the only chance we really have to meet as a bunch of guys and talk. We need this time together, and we deserve it.
Let's try to fit the draft into our schedules. Somebody cancel something. Somebody make a sacrifice. We love fantasy football, and we love spending time together. Let's stop treating fantasy football like some juvenile embarrassment that we wedge into cluttered corners of our lives. Let's embrace it, prioritize it. Now, who is free when?
PLAYER 1: Murray says he can bring lime chips and Clamato for Bloody Mary's.
PLAYER 2: In Round 8, take a fourth running back if I have three, or take Dustin Keller, John Carlson, or Desmond Clark if I don't have a tight end, or...
PLAYER 3: I have an on-line avatar that automatically rejects or accepts trades. The only decision I have to make now is what color my virtual helmet should be! Ooh, there's an advisor for that!
PLAYER 4: Can we squeeze a draft in during lunch on September 2nd? Oh wait, I am meeting a client that day.
COMMISH: This is my last year as commissioner, I swear.
19 comments, Last at 20 Aug 2009, 12:25pm by tuluse