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Pre-Season Pertinent? Perhaps
by Bob Cunningham
August 8, 2003

For the most part, I have learned to limit the importance I place on preseason NFL games in relation to the decisions I make regarding my fantasy teams.

Then again, that's probably too broad of a statement. Please allow me to be more specific.

Virtually every NFL team plays four preseason games. To me, those games represent four different viewpoints... four varying levels of importance, with the most important week not necessarily being the one you might think.

The pre-season openers, predictably I would assume, hold the least importance for me. I like to observe which player got the start when there are some anticipated hot and heavy position battles, especially among QBs. And I like to watch for run/pass ratios with new head coaches. For instance, I want to get an idea if Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio really is going to ask his offense to throw more frequently than did his predecessor, Tom Coughlin. That could affect whether I select Mark Brunell and/or Jimmy Smith, and whether I might take a late-round flyer on someone like Byron Leftwich.

Also, I look for any players with injury concerns. If a player in that category makes an appearance in the first preseason game, even if it's for only a few plays, I consider that a very good sign. On the other hand, sitting out the preseason opener really doesn't mean a lot. Just about any first-tier player with the slightest discomfort gets held out of the first game.

In Week 2, positional battles begin to take shape. Looking at the boxscores after the game to see who got the most carries, who hauled in the most receptions... those numbers are becoming more pertinent. I also like to look at completion percentages for the QBs on new teams or learning new systems, because I consider that stat a decent gauge of the QB's comfort level.

It's with Week 2 that I start focusing on the first half of preseason games. This is generally when First Teams are battling one another. Many an analyst has misinterpreted a 34-point result as being a sign of an improved offense. That could be so, but if the first team offense scored only 10 points while the reserves put up the other 24 (almost certainly against reserve defensive players), the effect is diminished.

Notice I haven't indicated anything about team success to this point. That's because I generally don't believe winning preseason games is important except for isolated cases, such as a team coming off a 2-14 season establishing some confidence or a new QB leading a late rally to victory.

Week 3, in my opinion, is the most important week. Why? Because very few head coaches want a positional battle to run into the final preseason game, although there are always some that do. The finale is the week the coach wants to have everything in place, and see what his team has. More about the final week of preseason in a minute.

Week 3 often tells us exactly where a borderline player stands. It's the week that roles are most clearly defined. The First Team plays a little longer than during the first two weeks, so we can get a better idea of how well key guys are faring. While I don't put a lot of emphasis in team results, I do put stock in how individuals perform during the final two weeks of preseason... especially quarterbacks. Most QBs excel or scuffle in streaks. It stands to reason that a signal-caller who struggles statistically in Weeks 3 and 4 of the preseason is less likely to light it up in the regular season opener.

Week 4's primary purpose is confirming the opening week starting assignments and deciding whether a hobbled player is healthy enough to play when the games begin to count. Head coaches vary widely in how they approach the final preseason game, which is another reason I prefer to avoid over-emphasizing their value. Some coaches stick with their regulars for virtually the entire game, looking to enter the regular campaign on a winning note and build additionally on the confidence of those starters.

Other coaches tend to be more conservative in Week 4 than in the previous weeks to avoid key injuries. Many times, a decent player who lost a positional battle in a close race will get the bulk of the playing time in the final preseason game. So be aware of that during your analysis. If, for instance, Ahman Green starts and gets five carries for the Packers before Lamar Smith enters and eventually finishes with 20 rushes, it darn well doesn't mean that Smith has supplanted Green as the starter, nor does it even suggest that Smith will get any kind of regular duty. It does confirm, however, than an injury to Green would likely result in a full workload for Smith.

Have fun with the preseason games. But take the resulting numbers with the proverbial grain of salt... because you're never completely sure how they'll translate into the games that matter.