By Steve Silverman
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The meaningless games are over, as the NFL saw fit to end each team’s four-game preseason schedule on Thursday night.
The goal of the majority of teams was to complete the preseason schedule without suffering a slew of key injuries that would have doomed the season before it started.
But while football will no longer be meaningless, that doesn’t mean that fans are about to see quality football.
During the first month of the season, teams will go at it hard and try to win games. But nearly all of the teams will be out of sync.
They didn’t play hard in the preseason, and they didn’t practice hard or long enough in training camp. No matter what the players tell you, they are not in the kind of game shape that they will be in October.
The first month of the regular season is basically what the old preseason used to be. Through the 1990s, teams would play a lot harder in the preseason because they wanted to get ready for the start of the regular season. That changed dramatically as pro football become a year-long sport.
Mini-camps and organized team activities (OTAs) in the offseason keep veteran players on top of the type of offense and defense that will be played. Players are expected to keep themselves in good shape on their own. Training camp simply doesn’t matter as much, and that’s why past training camp martinets like Don Shula, Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells are no longer needed.
(Actually, Ray Perkins ran one of the toughest training camps ever seen. Parcells’ predecessor with the New York Giants was from the Bear Bryant school of football preparation, and he put his team through the gauntlet on a regular basis.)
But because there are no double sessions in training camp and the preseason games only have meaning for those who are trying to make the bottom of the roster, most players simply are not game ready.
There may be one or two teams that are more prepared than the competition. Last year, Jim Harbaugh ran a much tougher camp in his first season as an NFL coach. As a result, the 49ers got out of the gate extremely well, winning three of four games in the first month of the season and seizing control of the NFC West with a 9-1 record before anyone had a chance to breathe.
Coaches who push their teams harder in training camp gamble that key players won’t get hurt. It’s a gamble that is not worth taking for good teams.
Coaches like Tom Coughlin, Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin and Mike McCarthy don’t come into the season thinking that they must go 16-0 to have a good season. Those coaches know that it’s about playing your best football in December, January and, hopefully, February.
That’s how Coughlin has done it while winning two of the last five Super Bowls. That’s the lesson that he taught Belichick in two Super Bowls and the same lesson he gave to McCarthy last year in the divisional playoffs.
The Giants weren’t as good as either the Pats or the Packers during the regular season, but they were better than both of them when the money was on the table in the postseason.
The better teams will get by in the first month of the season on talent and strategy. But the overall quality of play will not be good. It certainly won’t be anything close to what it will be in October and beyond.
That’s the sacrifice that all teams make by turning training camp into a modern-day trip to the spa.
Do you agree that players aren’t fully ready to go come Week 1? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…