“Once upon a time, when tumbleweeds blew across main street and people in Texas travelled everywhere by horseback, the National Football League played six preseason games. Those are days of yore. We know that these games don’t count, but they matter.”
Brad Sham, long time announcer for the Dallas Cowboys, provided wisdom on HBO’s latest episode of Hard Knocks ahead of the team’s matchup with the Houston Texans.
Sham highlights a truth that has become quite clear over the past year:
The future of the preseason is in doubt.
When concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic threatened the NFL season in 2020, the preseason was the first thing to get nixed from the schedule. An owners meeting just weeks after the Super Bowl resolved to remove a game from the 2021 preseason. Removing two games was a real option.
Like the producers of Hard Knocks, fans are scrambling to find storylines to breathe life back into the preseason. This week, Washington has a chance to do just that when they host the Baltimore Ravens.
This cross-conference matchup only happens every four years in the regular season. A rivalry has been built on proximity. Their two stadiums are the closest in the league: 32.6 miles, under a forty minute drive on a good day. The Ravens lead the all time series 4-3.
But this week the matchup has an entirely different cause for competition. The Baltimore Ravens are on a nineteen game preseason win streak, a feat only accomplished once before by Vince Lombardi and the 1960’s Green Bay Packers.
Some would think this to be a meaningless stat, but who wouldn’t jump on the opportunity to be ahead of Vince Lombardi on any list, even a preseason one.
Washington has a chance to defend the half-century old record of a man who coached them out of the dark ages in the 1969 season; a man who’s name is inscribed on the ring of fame at Fedex Field and the most coveted trophy in all of American sports.
With every week of preseason games removed, the offseason gets a week longer, players lose another opportunity to impress the coaches, and the Hard Knocks crew loses another night of sleep trying to fill five, hour-long episodes.
Of course a three minute continuous drone shot maneuvering over, in, and around the Cowboys practice facility is more entertaining for fans than footage of their fourth string quarterback throwing interceptions on three consecutive drives to actively lose the game. Fans paid for that experience. The product is struggling.
It is often forgotten in the preseason that this game should always be about winning. It may be a coincidence that the Ravens have won nineteen straight preseason games. They have failed on three straight playoff trips when the stakes were too high and the competition too severe.
It was no coincidence for Lombardi.
Perhaps the record isn’t on the mind of either team’s coach ahead of the Saturday showdown. Nobody could blame them if their main focus was deciding whether to keep ten offensive lineman on the final roster or looking to cut one last receiver. Those are perfectly important tasks for this time of year. But as we prepare for the possibility of Lombardi’s record falling to a coach who hasn’t given the fans a single glimpse of their beloved starting quarterback this preseason, it’s a good time to remember that the fans still expect a meaningful and hard-fought game.
The loss of genuine competition has already eroded half of the preseason.
“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” – Vince Lombardi
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