The NFL preseason is strange period of time prone to overreactions and hot takes. If you’ve been following the last few nights you know that NFL Twitter already has Canton working on busts for Deshaun Watson, Mitchell Trubisky, and DeShone Kizer based on one exhibition game against guys who probably aren’t making an NFL roster.
Its the time of the NFL season that makes folk heroes out of relatively obscure players who will likely be in a different line of work when September rolls around. That always makes for some fun stories and — while it is extremely rare — every now and then you get a Victor Cruz who lives up to the preseason hype and goes on to have a successful NFL career.
The preseason is also way too long. The NFL plays a full quarter of the number of regular season games as warmups. That would be like baseball having 40 exhibition games before each season. Its crazy and it leaves too many opportunities for costly injuries in meaningless games.
So as we settle in for a month of this strange almost-football, here are a few things that matter and a few things that don’t matter in the preseason.
THINGS THAT DON’T MATTER
There are all kinds of anecdotes that point to the fact that preseason wins and losses are not good indicators of whether a team is going to be good or bad in the regular season. The 2005 Colts went 0-5 in the preseason leading to a 14-2 regular season which included a 13-0 start. Similarly, the 2008 Lions went 4-0 in the preseason before suffering through their winless 0-16 season.
Those are just some of the most extreme examples, but the data backs it up. Sporting Charts did a study a few years ago to see if there was any statistical correlation between preseason record and regular season record. You can read their findings here, but to sum it up: no, there is no statistical correlation between the two records.
Sure, you would rather see the Titans 4-0 at the end of preseason than 0-4, but you shouldn’t get too high or too low based on whether the team is winning or losing in August.
Stats will distract during the preseason as highlight packages will show a box score featuring a guy like Jonathan Krause, for example, as the Titans leading receiver and people will get too excited. Stats in the preseason are essentially a function of playing time and level of competition which can leave inferior players putting up bigger numbers than their more talented counterparts. Stats also don’t tell the whole story of how someone played, especially in the preseason.
The perfect example of this is Deshaun Watson’s 15-of-25 for 179 yards and 24 yards rushing the other night. Watson certainly showed some positive things. His arm strength was better than I expected, his mobility will be a problem for opposing defenses, and he didn’t seem at all intimidated by the stage. However, much of his stat line was generated on improvised plays. The ability to improvise is great and all, but you can bet Bill O’Brien won’t want to see that much unscripted work from Watson when the games start counting. Not to mention the fact that he was playing against backups and a vanilla defensive scheme. Don’t get me wrong, Watson is talented, but he has a long way to go from a development standpoint.
THINGS THAT MATTER
This is quite possibly the most important aspect of the preseason. Every year we see a star player or two go down with a serious injury and it can fundamentally alter a team’s prospects before the regular season even begins. There is a tough balance between taking advantage of the opportunity to get valuable live game reps for your starters and exposing them to injury risk that teams must weigh.
The Titans will be holding out a couple guys like DeMarco Murray and Karl Klug on Saturday that almost certainly would be playing if it was a regular season game. Corey Davis and Tajae Sharpe are the other two that we know will be missing, but they aren’t as close to being ready to go as Murray and Klug.
The fact that Mariota is going to play should be taken as evidence that he is truly back healthy. We likely only see him for a series or two at the most but it will be good to see #8 back out there.
The Titans return 10 out of 11 starters on offense and 7 of 11 starters on defense. Most of the starting spots already seem to be settled. The biggest battle currently seems to be LeShaun Sims vs Adoree Jackson vs Brice McCain for snaps at corner across from Logan Ryan, although Sims still seems to have a pretty clear lead based on how reps are distributed in practice. How those guys fare in the preseason could have an impact on that competition.
There are more contested battles further down the roster at every position though. Some of the most intriguing to me will be the wide receivers, linebackers, and defensive line.
Preseason games are critical for evaluation — especially on defense — because so few reps in practice are truly live. Its hard to get a good feel for tackling and the ability to break tackles when you’re "thudding up". You regularly hear coaches talk about players earning more looks or reps based on a performance in a preseason game so they do carry some weight in personnel decisions.
To me, a successful Titans preseason ends with a healthy roster first and foremost. Getting Corey Davis some live reps in a preseason game would be great if he can get back in time, but I can understand the team’s caution in bringing him along slowly from his hamstring injury.
The position battles will sort themselves out one way or another, but you’d like to see some good, strong competition with guys pushing each other to new levels. While I think LeShaun Sims can be a good NFL corner — he shouldn’t be viewed as "just a placeholder" in the starting lineup — I would have to agree that the best possible outcome for the Titans is to have Adoree Jackson perform so well that they can’t keep him off the field. He’s got the highest ceiling of any corner on the roster and offers playmaking ability that is desperately needed on this defense.
Other than that I am just looking forward to seeing them line up across from guys from another team. What are you hoping to see during preseason action?